The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

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How Am I Doing? How to Have Meaningful Conversations with Students about Class Process

by Jess Dunn, Instructional Consultant at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence07Teachers-t_span-articleLarge

Mid-term is a difficult time for professors and students. Both experience the sensation of time moving far too quickly coupled with the illusion that the end of the semester is an ever-retreating horizon. The excitement that characterized the beginning of the semester starts to wane and disenchantment sets in. It is at this point in the semester when I am filled with the most doubt: about the course, my teaching abilities, and the students. Thus, around mid-term, I open up a discussion with students around what is helping or hindering their process of thinking, learning, and creating. The focus of this discussion is not on course content but on the process of student learning and development. It involves asking questions about how students learn, about how professors teach, and, finally, how we are working together to create an environment that makes teaching and learning possible

Often, however, when you try to open this discussion, you are met with blank stares and silence. It may be tempting to take that as a sign that everything is great or that students simply don’t care. But it is far more likely that students are not comfortable entering into a conversation with a professor that feels like a confrontation. That is because students are savvy. They have been students for a long time and they know tPanopticonhe score. Whether or not they have read their Foucault, they know intuitively and through experience that the classroom is awash with technologies of discipline. Visibility in the classroom can too often be met with punishment in the form of shaming, grade reduction, and additional work. So, how do you get students to engage openly in this conversation, in the classroom, with you? How do you go about opening up the discussion when students tend toward silence in the face of authority especially when that face is asking for feedback that may not be entirely to its liking?

For starters, you can prepare for the discussion with the same gusto as any other classroom activity, assessment, or presentation. Take the time to prepare discussion questions that address your concerns and goals and invite students to express theirs. You may want to give the students an anonymous mid-semester course evaluation  and review it ahead of time to help you develop your questions accordingly. You also want to make sure that you leave enough class time to devote to this discussion. Five minutes at the end of class on a Friday afternoon is probably not ideal for this purpose. When you and your students feel rushed you are less likely to think clearly and speak cogently and more likely to be irritated, anxious, and defensive. Offering a few stolen minutes at the end of the class can also be interpreted as a lack of genuine concern which discourages students from taking the discussion seriously.

Having prepared, the most important thing you can do is enter into the discussion from a position of not knowing. This is not to say that you should feign ignorance in a Columbo-esque ruse to catch your students unaware and get them to confess! You may, however, want to let go of assumptions that you are the expert on how a classroom should be run and instead, position students as the experts on how they learn. Your actions, words, and responses all flow from this position of relinquishing claims to expertise and inform your comportment throughout the discussion. One way to begin the conversation might be to begin with observations about yourself and areas where you see room for improvement. This not only encourages students to help you with your goals as a professor and also shows them the kinds of issues you hope to address, it also models for the students how to take responsibility for their contributions to the classroom and how to offer constructive criticism. Another way to open up this discussion is to normalize the situation. Let them know that all courses can be improved upon and that not every teaching style or process works the same for everyone. You can frame the discussion by introducing the notion of a class as a collaborative project wherein we all have various roles and responsibilities to help create a useful, engaging, and enjoyable experience.conversations

But no matter how you begin your discussion, open-ended questions will likely be the most helpful contribution you can make. Questions that are too specific like, Do I assign too much reading? are often met with yes or no responses and can lead students to respond the way they think you want them to. Open-ended, however, does not mean vague or unfocused. Questions that are too broad, for example, What do you think about the class so far? often overwhelm or confuse students and tend to pull for responses like I like it or It’s really hard. Questions that are “just right” offer a framework for discussion while still leaving room for students to voice their ideas. Some examples of questions that are “just right” in this context might be How can we make better use of out-of-class readings? or If you could change anything about this course so far, what would you change?  If students still offer short, nondescript responses you can ask them to elaborate with questions like: Could you tell me more about that? or How so? By asking questions and pressing students in gentle ways, you can encourage a discussion that not only helps you understand “problems” in the classroom, but possible solutions.

And so, what you get when you engage openly and thoughtfully with your students is more than just an answer to the question, How am I doing? You get a way forward through the mid-semester malaise and feedback that allows you to continue to develop as a professor and help your students to continue to develop as learners, thinkers, and creators.

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Early Course Evaluations

-by Rachel Luckenbill and Dr. Steven Hansen

A few semesters ago, I noticed that one of my classes was not engaging actively in the large group discussions I was attempting to facilitate.   I tried asking different kinds of questions and moving chairs into a circle rather than having them face forward. None of my efforts prevailed. I decided to see if early course evaluations could determine what the problem might be.
Before mid-term, I asked students to tell me anonymously what aspects of the course helped them learn the most and what least contributed to their learning. I discovered that roughly half of the students preferred small group work to large group discussions. I acknowledged their feedback and began regularly incorporating small-group activities while making large group discussions less frequent. Having seen that I would listen to their feedback, students’ engagement increased and the class became much more lively.
The following is adapted from a “teaching and learning tip” authored by Dr. Steven Hansen:
In her research, Carolin Keutzer identifies “five distinct benefits of midterm evaluation: a) The information can he used to make changes during the current course; (b) students feel empowered to help design their own educational process; (c) it allows an assessment of specific behaviors rather than a global “quality of teaching” rating; (d) instructors can ask for the information most pertinent to them-even soliciting criticism without fearing any adverse consequences from the administration; and (e) the evaluations go directly to the instructor.” (Keutzer, 1993).
Peter Cohen’s meta-analysis of studies on the impact of early-course evaluations on end of term evaluations concludes, “Instructors receiving mid-semester feedback averaged .16 of a rating point higher on end-of-semester overall ratings than did instructors receiving no mid-semester feed- back” (Cohen, 1980). In a more recent study at Brigham Young University, the authors show that the impact of midcourse feedback on end-of-term feedback depends on what instructors do with the early course evaluation: “Student ratings showed improvement in proportion to the extent to which the faculty member engaged with the midcourse evaluation. Faculty who read the student feedback and did not discuss it with their students saw a 2 percent improvement in their online student rating scores. Faculty who read the feedback, discussed it with students, and did not make changes saw a 5 percent improvement. Finally, faculty who conducted the midcourse evaluation, read the feedback, discussed it with their students, and made changes saw a 9 percent improvement” (McGowan & Osguthorpe, 2011).
The table, adapted from an article by Buskit and Hogan (2010), offers guidance on how to process midsemester feedback. 
Throw out the off-the-wall comments that do not provide you with useful information and forget about them. “She needs a haircut and a new pair of shoes.”
Set aside the positive comments that don’t tell you anything specific. “Best class ever”
Divide the negative comments into two groups: those you can change and those that you cannot change. Can Change: … redistributing the points for different assignments because of the amount of work that they perceived were required for each assignment.
Cannot Change: … let students out of
class early rather than keeping them the entire class period.
Work on perceptions and learn to be explicit. As we look at our evaluations, we often think, “But I do that!” If we feel we are doing the things that students say we are not doing, then it maybe that we need to address students’ perceptions.
Savor the comments that are meant to be negative, but let you know you are doing your Job. “She made us think.” “Dr. S. is a very influential
teacher, but I didn’t come to college to be influenced.”


Karen Lewis (2001) says, “Perhaps the most important part of conducting a mid-semester feedback session is your response to the students. In your response, you need to let them know what you learned from their information and what differences it will make. ”

Some Early Course Evaluation Ideas:

Pluses and Wishes
“As this course progressed, I was able to get it back on track by using a mid-semester evaluation process called “pluses and wishes.” Students divided the evaluation sheet in half and placed all the positives about the course on one side and suggestions for improvement on the other. For the most part, the students were satisfied with the course, but the one “wish” that was prevalent was to increase student interaction” (Ladson-Billings, 1996).

Traffic Light Survey
Nakpangi Johnson (Pharmacy Graduate) uses a “One Minute Traffic Light Survey.”


More Early Course Evaluation Methods


Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan, (2010). She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes: Handling Those Pesky Course Evaluations. Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (1), 51-56.

Peter Cohen, (1980). Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings. Research in Higher Education 13 (4), 321-341.

Carolin Keutzer, (1993). Midterm Evaluation of Teaching Provides Helpful Feedback to Instructors. Teaching of Psychology 20 (4), 238-240.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, (1996). Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students. Theory into Practice 35 (2), 79-85.

Karen Lewis, (2001). Using Midsemester Student Feedback and Responding to It. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 87, 33-44.

Whitney Ransom McGowen and Russell T. Osgathorpe, (2011). Student and Faculty Perceptions of Effects of Midcourse Evaluation. To Improve the Academy 29, 160-172.