A Guide to Quickly and Effectively Gathering Comprehensive Student Feedback

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:

  1. At what moment in the class this week were you most engaged as a learner?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced as a learner?
  3. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find the most affirming or helpful?
  4. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  5. 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.

Freewriting Tips and Techniques

writingby Yair Solan

Instructors, have you noticed your students zoning out during lectures? Has it been difficult to get them to participate in class or to maintain discussions? Are they having a hard time with the course material? If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, then freewriting can help!

Freewriting is ungraded in-class writing that is designed to help students understand and reflect upon course content, prepare for class discussions, and develop their ideas prior to more formal writing assignments. These relatively unedited yet focused writing activities can be useful at any part of a class session or semester. Freewriting assignments may be completed at the beginning of class as a warm up exercise for students or to revive a discussion in the middle of the period.

The following post includes several ways in which one might integrate simple freewriting activities in courses across a wide range of academic disciplines.

Please note: It is always a good idea to remind students to write continuously during freewriting sessions and to alert them in advance when their work will be collected, or if volunteers will be solicited to share their responses with the class.

  • Open Class with Freewriting on a Relevant Topic:
    • When? At the very start of class.
    • How? Pose a question or raise an issue central to that day’s class. This can also be done by assigning the freewrite for homework and then discussing it at the beginning of class.
    • Why? To prepare students for the day’s lecture or for discussion. Such an exercise asks students to explore and think about the course material, promoting active learning during lectures and readying students for a lively discussion.
  • Ask Students to Write a Summary of a Lecture:
    • When? Immediately following a class lecture.
    • How? Ask students to write a concentrated summary of the material. This can be one page long or as short as a concise paragraph. You might consider collecting and reading these summaries, giving credit to those students who turned in this assignment.
    • Why? Writing a synopsis of a class lecture may not only compel students to become more deeply involved with the subject matter, but also allows instructors to make changes to the way in which they present course content based on what they have learned from the students’ summaries.
  • Have Students Generate Questions:
    • When? After students have completed a particularly difficult reading.
    • How? Ask students to generate lists of questions raised by the text for homework; this activity can also be continued at the beginning of class. The freewrite may be collected, or volunteers can share their questions with the class. This can also be done in small groups, where each group has to reach a consensus on one or two central questions that its members would like to discuss with the class as a whole.
    • Why? This activity encourages students’ critical engagement with the course content while suggesting areas which may require clarification by the instructor.
  • Assign “Minute Papers”:
    • When? In the middle of class, following the discussion of especially important course concepts.
    • How? Ask students to freewrite a very brief paper in response to a question which assesses their understanding of the course material. Possible questions may include: “what key term(s) are important for understanding this concept and how are they defined?”, “what is puzzling you after listening to this lecture?”, or “how is the topic introduced in today’s class related to our previous discussion?”
    • Why? Aside from offering valuable feedback for the instructor and prompting students to pause and think about the concepts discussed, this freewrite also helps students refocus their attention in the second half of the class period.
  • Freewrite to Stimulate Class Discussion:
    • When? At a moment when students are not readily participating in a discussion.
    • How? Ask students to freewrite for several minutes in response to a particularly important query. Following this, volunteers can read their freewrites to the class and elicit their peers’ reactions. Alternately, it may be productive to have students share their ideas with each other in groups before discussing with the entire class.
    • Why? This exercise gives students some time to reflect upon the issues raised in class and to formulate their responses or questions. Also, for those students who are nervous about speaking in front of the whole class, discussing their reactions in small groups first might help them build confidence in their own ideas.
  • If Class Discussion is Intense, Ask Students to Freewrite Their Contributions:
    • When? Following particularly heated discussions.
    • How? Ask students to stop for a few minutes and have them individually freewrite the contribution they wish to make to the class’s conversation. After this freewriting session, volunteers can be invited to summarize their responses for the class. If discussion continues until the end of the class, it may be beneficial to keep this conversation going by asking students to post their responses to the course’s online discussion board or blog.
    • Why? This freewriting activity gives students the time and space to clarify their arguments and to develop their reactions without being interrupted. It also allows students to see the connection between their verbal participation in the classroom and their written work in the course.

Adapted from John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom

The Believing Game: The Art of Summarizing Arguments

by Marissa Brostoff

One of the most deceptively tricky writing skills to teach college students is the art of summarizing arguments. In our rush to insist that the heart of the academic paper is the student’s own argument—and, therefore, to steer them away from the habits of “regurgitation” they may have learned in high school—it’s easy to forget that summing up the arguments of others is itself a creative, vital, and difficult part of the writing process. So how can we reframe this humble art to give it the respect it deserves?

Composition and rhetoric theorist Peter Elbow has been working on this problem for decades. In Elbow’s reframing of the problem, there are two ways to approach an argument. The first is what we commonly describe as critique or “critical thinking.” Elbow calls this approach a “doubting game” that “teaches us to extricate or detach ourselves from ideas” in order to call them into question. The second is a version of what literary theorists sometimes call reparative or surface reading: a strategy that “teaches us to enter into ideas—to invest or insert ourselves.” Elbow calls this “the believing game” (8).

We play the believing game, then, whenever we test out an idea by trying it on for size. But Elbow has also developed a way of playing the believing game as a literal game. Here’s how students can play:

“Write a summary of some belief that you strongly disagree with. Then write a summary of the position you actually hold on the topic. Give both summaries to a classmate or two, and see if they can tell which position you endorse. If you’ve succeeded, they won’t be able to tell” (Graff and Birkenstein 38).

In our experience, everyone loves this game (this also makes it a good icebreaker at the start of the semester). In the original version, students are asked to come up with their own topics individually (they will likely run the gamut from “cats vs. dogs” to “the death penalty”). This approach works well in writing classrooms, where learning to argue a position is an end in and of itself. In content-based courses, you can adapt the game so that students are asked to come up with arguments that take opposing positions on something you’ve been discussing in class. For instance, in an ethics class, you might ask students to take different positions on a single ethical dilemma; in a structural engineering course, you might ask them to come up with opposing conclusions drawn from the same data set about where to build a bridge.

Either way, give everyone a few minutes to write their two summaries; ask them to pair up, switch off, and guess which argument represented the writer’s actual position; and then discuss the results as a group.

The fun of the game lies in the fact that it’s genuinely hard to win, or at least to know in advance that you’ll win—either as a writer or as a guesser. If you ask for a show of hands—Who successfully duped their partner? Who successfully guessed their partner’s true opinion?—you’ll most likely get a mixed bag. And that raises important questions about argumentation that the class can discuss together:

Was it easier to argue for or against your own position, and why?

Did your rhetorical approach change as you moved from one to the other?

As a guesser, were you able to figure out the writer’s “tell”?

Did your guess rely on assumptions about authorship—i.e., an extra-textual hunch about your partner’s opinions?

Did you project your own views onto your partner?

This is one of these exercises that reminds you that everyone would be a good academic writer—and reader—if they could just channel their everyday rhetorical and epistemological skill set into the work of the classroom. Let the games begin!

Works Cited:

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Elbow, Peter. “The Believing Game—Methodological Believing.” The Selected Works of Peter Elbow, 2008. http://works.bepress.com/peter_elbow/20.

So Many Students, So Little Time: Using Peer Review Sessions to Workshop Student Research Papers

by Danielle DeNigris

Student research papers are rarely enjoyable for neither the students who write them nor the instructors who grade them. Many instructors, including myself, may have assigned these papers at the end of term and have been frustrated with the outcome—perhaps due to rampant use of plagiarism, disorganization, or the use of random facts. Why might this be? For one, there are many steps and skills that go into writing a good research paper and the ability to do so may be more difficult for the novice, undergraduate student than we, as instructors, may even realize. Specifically, writing across the curriculum researcher John Bean (2011) highlights three things that have a significant impact on student research projects:

(1) Student misconceptions about research: Students may enter your course having little experience writing a research paper. Their only experience may be from high school in which they were asked to write “all-about” papers in which they jammed as much information about a topic from textbooks and reference books that they could find.

(2) Faculty misconceptions about student researchers: Many faculty members may believe that students should have already learned to write research papers in their first-year English Composition class. However, although students are taught this style of writing, research papers vary greatly across disciplines and genres. An English research paper will no doubt be dramatically different from a Psychology or Biology or Sociology research paper.

(3) Difficulty of the sub-skills embedded within research projects: Research requires an understanding of the discipline itself, the types of questions that are appropriate to research, how to find scholarly sources, how to incorporate and properly cite these sources, and an understanding of the audience and genre of the paper. These skills can be difficult to grasp and therefore may seem overwhelming to the inexperienced undergraduate researcher. In my experience, I have found that only a handful of students demonstrate the ability to incorporate, interpret, and properly cite relevant sources in their papers clearly and effectively.

How peer review sessions can help YOUR STUDENTS:

Peer review sessions can help students understand the steps involved in writing a “good” research paper and enables students to talk through their ideas with other students. Bouncing ideas off of another student allows for feedback on the clarity of their work and provides an idea of how readers may respond to their writing. Peer review sessions also expose students to a range of perspectives, rather than just the instructor’s, similar to the peer-review process for scholarly journals (but with more scaffolding!).

How peer review sessions can help YOU:

Incorporating peer review sessions into the classroom can help to cut down time spent on reading drafts and grading papers. By having students work on each other’s drafts you won’t need to spend time reading each draft. Instead, you can simply read students’ notes and comments from the peer review sessions to determine where your students are at as a whole and any problems they may be having with the writing process (You can then address this issues in class). You can also make an informed decision regarding the need to meet individually with select students who may be struggling (For more information on strategies for successful one-on-one conferences see last week’s blog post).

“I have a large class. Now what?”

Sometimes in large classrooms it is hard to keep all students motivated and on-task. Try having students turn in their notes about each of their partners’ papers at the end of the class to be graded as a low-stakes assignment or participation grade. By requiring students to produce something at the end of the peer review session, it helps to keep them focused. Then hand these back to the student whose paper it refers to so that they can use this when writing or editing their papers.

Additionally, make sure to move all throughout the room to field any questions students have while they are working. By having structured peer review sessions, you can limit the amount of “what should I be reviewing?” questions you would need to answer allowing you to observe more groups.

Implementing peer review sessions: Two examples

The examples provided below are in no way extensive. Peer review sessions can be a wonderful way to workshop research proposals, annotated reference lists, and outlines. Additionally, the examples provided below can be modified to fit the needs of any writing assignment (e.g., term papers, reaction papers, low-stakes assignments, summaries, etc.), not just the research paper.

Example 1: WORKSHOPPING THE THESIS

Assign students to pairs and have them take turns asking each other the following questions:

  • What question is your paper going to address?
  • Why is this idea interesting to research? How does it fit within the field or body of literature?
  • What is your one sentence answer to the research question your paper addresses? Note to Students: If the writer doesn’t have a good thesis statement yet, you can move on to the next question and come back to this one. At that point you may be able to help them develop a thesis statement.
  • What is the support for your thesis? Talk me through your argument and explain any ideas you have so far. Note to Students: The writer should do most of the talking, however, you should respond with suggestions, bring up additional ideas, ask questions, play devil’s advocate, etc.

Example 2: WORKSHOPPING THE DRAFT

Assign students to groups of four (or combine two pairs from example 1). Have students email a copy of their draft to their group members prior to the peer-review session. Each student should then come to the peer review session having read their group members’ drafts.

  • Have students make three columns on three separate sheets of paper (one for each paper they will review) with three headings: +, -, and ?

+

-

?

In this column, note aspects of the draft that worked well (e.g., clear thesis statement, proper formatting, strong evidence supporting the thesis, etc.) In this column, note aspects of the draft that were problematic or any negative reactions you had while reading (e.g., unclear ideas/writing style, weak evidence, improper formatting, etc.) In this column, note any questions or comments you had while reading the paper (e.g., places that need clarification or more development.)
  • Students do this for one draft at a time. After the first draft is commented on, each student takes turns explaining to the writer what he or she wrote down in the three different columns.   At this point the reviewers do not give advice, they only comment and the writer jots down any notes while listening to the reviews.
  • After each of the three reviewers has spoken, the writer can then engage them in conversation about suggestions for review.
  • The group then repeats this process for the remaining drafts.

General Tips: Encourage students to reformulate their ideas through conversation with their partner/group rather than reading from their notes/drafts. Talking through a project can help students who are struggling with the development of their arguments to get feedback on the clarity of their work and suggestions for improvement.

Improve Student Writing with One-on-One Conferences

by Chris A. Eng

Teachers: it’s nearing the end of the semester and you’re probably fretting about your students’ final project. Even though this assignment factors heavily into their overall grade, it’s difficult to set aside time in the classroom to guide your students through the writing and research process. Moreover, reading and commenting on individual drafts can be overwhelming. Try tackling the final project with one-on-one writing conferences.

Individual students conferences can be used for a variety of purposes and for classes of different sizes and fields. In these meetings, students may be more willing to raise questions and concerns. Conversely, you as an instructor may learn about the elements of your teaching that are most and least effective as well as what might need further clarification in the classroom.

Student conferences can be immensely valuable as long as you put in the right prep-work and structure to maximize their effectiveness. Follow these steps!

Step 1: Incorporate These Meetings into Your Class Schedule

To give a concrete scenario, this post will show how you can tailor conferences toward giving feedback on drafts for a writing assignment. Here are a two possible ways for formatting individual student conferences for smaller classes of 15-25 students.

Consider holding the student conferences over two class sessions. Divide the class into 10-15 minute blocks (possibly extend the meetings into your office hours). Print out the list of times and have students sign up for a specific block. Tell them to arrive early and that these meetings are not optional.

  • Repurpose class-time—sometimes our students are overwhelmed with midterms and assignments to the point that they are not quite motivated to contribute and participate in classroom discussions. If you have the option, consider cancelling two classes and scheduling 10-15 minute meetings with each student. Meanwhile, give them a focused assignment to make sure that they are working on a specific portion of their final project when they are not meeting with you. You may ask them to: find and read two sources; write annotations for two sources; watch a lecture online and post to the course website.
  • Keep your class engaged with other work: Following a two class session model, one day can be used for peer review and the other during a visit to the computer lab, in which students work on their research paper (looking up/reading articles and/or writing). As the entire class works, meet with students one-on-one in the front of the classroom.

Step 2: A Little Prep-work Goes a Long Way

Address Baseline Questions Before the Meeting

Spend about 10-15 minutes a class or two before the conferences discussing the assignment again. No matter how thoroughly you went over the assignment prompt the first time around, new questions will inevitably arise for students as they start to approach the project. Ask students to tell you what they’re expected to accomplish in this assignment. You might be surprised by how many different answers you get.

Take the time to talk through and clarify any questions with the class as a whole. Tell your students that now is the time to discuss any confusion about the assignment in general and that you would not be answering these questions in the conferences (which will be dedicated toward their individual projects).

Based on this conversation, feel free to list out several components of the assignment that they MUST know and understand. This way, students will come into the conference with the necessary baseline understanding of the assignment AND you won’t need to repeat answers to simple questions for each individual meeting.

Have Students Come Prepared with a Draft and Questions

This is a good opportunity to make sure that your students are making progress with the writing (and not saving it until the last minute). Ask them to come into the meeting with a draft that is no less than 2 pages long. Encourage them to try and formulate a thesis and basic structure/outline of their argument in this draft. Then, tell them to take a few minutes to carefully read over and review their draft before the meeting.

Ask them to formulate three/four specific questions about their paper that they would like you to address. Specify that these questions must be focused and demonstrate their critical self-evaluation of the draft. Responses will not be given for generic questions like “what do you think?” or “how’s my thesis?”

Step 3: Structure the Meeting

Engage in a dialogue with the student, but primarily as a listener.

1) Read the draft silently while giving students the following task: write out your thesis and main points, then write down the main problems you see with your draft

Focus on high-order concerns (such as argument, ideas, evidence, and organization) instead of grammar, mechanics, and style. Also, jot down three or four key issues that seem most prevalent (rather than copy-editing the draft).

2) Ask the student to report back (on thesis, main points, and main problems)

3) Engage with her/his take as you report back some of your key observations

Provide positive feedback to encourage them. Yet, give an honest assessment about how to move forward.

4) Collaborate in setting an agenda for addressing key problems

After hearing what the student as identified as the main problems, share the key problems you’ve observed, such as thesis construction, development of the argument, selection and analysis of evidence. Then, ask the student to select 2 main issues to discuss further for the meeting

5) In discussing these key problems, give the student several concrete tasks for moving forward with the writing

Step 4: Follow Up!

When the class reconvenes as a whole following the individual meetings, take some time to reflect on any general patterns you’ve observed. Make note of the good work that they’ve put in so far, while reassuring them that writing is difficult and that it takes time to perfect. Also, take the opportunity to address any common problems or difficulties faced by the students.