by Joshua Keaton
Now that our courses are over—or mostly over—it is time to reflect on what went well and what went poorly, and wait anxiously for those student evaluations that might give you some insight. If you are like us, then you often have a vague notion that some sessions went well, some not so well, and some were average. If you are even more like us, you probably aren’t sure exactly what features of particular sessions account for the three different outcomes. And those evaluations you are waiting for? While some feedback is better than no feedback, we all know those student evaluations aren’t that helpful. Student evaluations are pitched at too general a level to tell us precisely what works and what doesn’t, and they always come too late to help us teach better in the classes we are in. For these reasons, we suggest the possibility of incorporating the Critical Incidence Questionnaire into your course. Using such questionnaires provides you with anonymized feedback throughout the term that will allow you to focus in particular sessions, assignments, reading, lectures, etc.
Brookfield and Presskill’s questionnaire consists of the following five questions:
- At what moment in the class this week were you most engaged as a learner?
- At what moment in class this week were you most distanced as a learner?
- What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find the most affirming or helpful?
- What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
- What surprised you most this week?
By inviting student responses to these questions you will be provided with data that is specific to the sessions you have recently taught. You can tell students to prepare them before class and turn them in once a week, or provide a few minutes of class time each week to the task. Not only do you receive feedback on your most recent teaching efforts, but students gain by being able to reflect on the course and their role in the course. All too often the rush to disseminate or assimilate course content pushes out all other concerns both in the mind of the instructor and the student. The CIQ can facilitate the process of learning by focusing both students and instructors on their roles in the classroom, and call their attention to the substance of the course, by highlighting the most noteworthy, interesting, and difficult moments in the course.
Of course, one need not stick with precisely these questions. The questions can be modified to focus on discipline- or instructor-specific concerns, such as: lectures, group-work, readings, labs, or assignments. Like any other assignment a more tailored, critically engaged question is more likely to provoke specific, critically engaged answers.
If you find yourself wondering what made one class, lecture, assignment, group project, etc. better or worse than another, consider doing the obvious—but strangely unintuitive—thing; just ask your students!
Brookfield, S.D., and Preskill, S. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. (2nd ed.) San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2005.