I recently wrote an email to the POD listserv that got favorable reactions, so I'm reposting it here to make it easier for others to share. The discussion was on the value of using open-ended questions for mid-semester feedback. My PRISM column from January 2014, "Culture Clash: To encourage self-starters, begin with the curriculum," covers related ground.
AMEN to using open-ended mid-semester feedback.
This reminds me of something Sanjoy Mahajan wrote while he was at MIT -- I can't find the piece now, but it's about how he got feedback on his then-draft textbook. Sanjoy told his students (paraphrased) "I wrote this thing, I know there are bugs in it -- places where things aren't explained well, etc -- and I CAN'T FIND THEM. You can. I need your help!" Basically, he asked them to be textbook editors/reviewers, placing them in an expert role and himself in a learner's role ("what is it like when you try to use my book to learn something?") It's sort of like being an ethnographer.
Anecdotally, as an undergrad (at Olin College), I was always impressed and deeply appreciative of professors who took time in class to discuss mid-semester feedback. Not just presenting feedback results to us ("here's what you said, here's what I'm going to do about it") and doing a quick ask for any further feedback/questions, but very seriously structuring it as a design review of the course itself, with the students as the co-reviewers:
- Here were my 3-5 big learning objectives for the course.
- Here's how I thought we were doing on them before I heard your mid-semester feedback.
- Here's how I think you feel we're doing on them now, based on your mid-semester feedback.
- Am I understanding you correctly?
This was often the intro to a rousing conversation about things like...
Why are those the learning objectives? We'd seen these random words on our syllabus at the start of the semester, but had no context to understand what they might mean. Now, halfway through the term, we could talk somewhat intelligently about them.
Do we (as students) have the same understanding of what the Big Ideas in this class/the discipline are? ("Wait, Fourier transforms are actually... that important? I thought this obscure MATLAB function we keep using was a key idea, and that the transform was just a sidenote; clearly I should rethink my conceptualization of ideas in this discipline.") As an extremely global learner who needs to see the "big picture" before anything make sense, I appreciated this step-back tremendously.
What does it mean to learn/teach/be an engineer/scientist/anthropologist/mathematician/historian/etc? Are we (as students) doing that? How can we tell? If we don't think we are, what can we do to change that?
Basically, these professors used mid-semester course reviews as an opportunity to expose the class' underlying "source code" (as with programming) -- to "pop the hood" (as with a car) and let us muck around with the internals, so that students would implicitly understand that things like "how do you teach calculus?" was not an Eternal Truth Handed Down From On High, Alleluia -- but rather a social construct.
Who decided calculus would be important? Who decided how to teach it to 18-year-olds? People! These are all choices made by people, and they could have been chosen differently! And I'm a person -- and I can also help with that shaping and choosing of how I (and others) get to learn this thing, and which things we shall learn!
This probably sounds obvious to instructors, but it's mindblowing to a shy, quiet teenage girl (the kind instructors complain does not "take initiative" -- that was me) who's never considered that they could have this sort of self-directed learning agency in school before. Maybe outside of school, some of my classmates knew they had that -- at the skate park, in their Boy Scout troop, etc. But being able to push back and make comments and co-design learning experiences in a space with Big Important Professors With Authority? Weeeeeird.
And that insight, in turn, transformed the way I approached my other classes, even with professors who did not create space for student feedback by default; once I saw the entire universe of my learning as editable-by-me, and interpreted "professor did not ask for feedback" not as "it is impossible to change this course," but rather as "the feature of editing this course is still there, but it's hidden and may be harder to utilize" (almost as if it were a hidden, undocumented keyboard shortcut). I am not the only one; many of my college classmates report the same. That's what the culture of our college taught us. And a lot of that culture was passed on using mid-semester feedback.
Anyway. Once that lightbulb turned on, I was hooked; it's how I ended up doing my PhD in engineering education (where I am now). And again, that's anecdotal, so if anyone's done research on similar stories, I would love to read about it.