Clear as mud? It never hurts to ask
By Mark Bachmann, Teaching and Learning Centre
How do you know whether your students understand the course material? You ask them, says Tun Myint, an SFU health sciences lecturer. For the past few years, he has made short questionnaires available at the end of every class to gather feedback on the “muddiest points” in his lectures—the topics or concepts his students found most confusing. He revisits those points in the next class to provide greater clarity.
The practice works. According to studies that he carried out in Summer 2016 and Summer 2017 with the help of Teaching and Learning Development Grants (TLDGs) from SFU’s Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines, more than 40 percent of his students fill out the forms each week on average. More than 90 percent of those initially reporting confusion say they “partially understand or fully understand” the material after the follow-up explanations.
Even students who don’t use the questionnaires view them as worthwhile. “I didn’t do them, but I found that it still helped me hearing other students’ questions,” said one study participant. Another respondent felt relief after learning that he wasn’t the only student confused about a particular topic.
In addition to identifying problem areas, the questionnaires encourage self-reflection by asking students about the most important concepts or “take home messages” they picked up that day.
One student commented, “I believe the take home message is important. When you ask people what you learn[ed], they actually review it.”
Another said, “It did [enhance my learning] because it made me reflect on what I was understanding rather than reading through it and thinking "Got it, got it."
A chance to be heard
One finding of the follow-up study and several related student focus groups was that simply providing a channel for feedback has a positive impact on the classroom environment.
“[The tool] helps because it shows that he’s concerned about our learning and wants to go over what we want to understand,” said one student in a first-year course.
Another said, “Having it there is always better than not having it there.”
Those comments come as no surprise to Tun Myint: “It is very useful for the undergrad students because some of the students do not dare to ask in the class, some of them are shy, and some of them have a language barrier.
“A lot of students say … ‘Not a lot of profs give us [the chance] to give feedback.’ They really appreciate it.”
From pen and paper to online
Originally the questionnaire was a slip of paper with four questions on it that took “about two minutes” to complete. In Summer 2017 Tun Myint worked with Kar-On Lee and Christina Drabik of the Teaching and Learning Centre to develop an online version in Canvas using the learning platform’s Quiz function.
“It’s kind of evolving step by step,” he says. The online version allows him to compile results more quickly—an important consideration in large classes.
When is it most useful?
One conclusion of his TLDG studies was that the practice could be more useful in some contexts—for example, in cases where an instructor is teaching a course for the first time—and less useful in cases where an instructor has taught the same material repeatedly and is already aware of the most common muddy points, or in the case of flipped classrooms where the format already provides ample opportunities for interaction between instructors and students.
However, ultimately Tun Myint believes the tool is an effective means of “improving student learning and instructor teaching” and is eager to share his experience with others. He has created a PDF document explaining how to implement a simple questionnaire in Canvas and he invites other instructors who might be interested in applying this approach to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.