Building an online student-staff partnership with per-session feedback: Perspectives from Medical Statistics

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In this post, Margaret MacDougall and Sophia Wong Ching Hwai share their thoughts on implementing per-session feedback as an effective way of creating a sense of partnership between students and instructors and enhancing student engagement. Margaret MacDougall is a senior lecturer in medical statistics at the Edinburgh Medical School and Sophia Wong Ching Hwai is an undergraduate medical student and Student Representative for BMedSci in Health Sciences: Surgical Sciences. This post is part of May-June’s ‘Hot Topic’ series:  “Teaching and Learning during a Pandemic: Lessons and reflections from the last year”.

The learning of statistics has earned a reputation for being formidable among non-specialists, and in this setting the statistical instructor is compelled to go the extra mile in fostering a mutual sense of well-being. There is a need, therefore, on the part of the instructor to be proactive in seeking harmony between their personal efforts and the success of the student learning experience. In this article, I recommend the implementation of per-session feedback as a simple but effective tool for creating a sense of partnership between instructors and students and enhancing student engagement. My reflections are based on the teaching of statistics remotely to undergraduate medical students enrolled in a BMedSci honours course during semester 1 of 2021. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, I delivered synchronous teaching and learning sessions in clinically contextualised theoretical and applied statistics using BlackBoard Collaborate Ultra (henceforth ‘Collaborate’). This contrasted with the more traditional face-to-face approach used in previous years and opened up doors of opportunity for interactivity and innovation.

Collaborate affords super functionality for creativity in teaching and learning design, and the idea of a lesson plan dating back to my early days in teacher training proved invaluable for use of personal navigational pointers for the Collaborate interface and in managing timing in the use of break-out rooms for group interactivity, question-and-answer sessions, polls and session breaks. However, there are tacit assumptions built into the scaffolding of a lesson plan and the content of teaching and learning that need to be identified and reviewed through student feedback.

At Edinburgh and more widely, the practice of eliciting mid-course feedback is valued as conducive to improving student engagement and as a formative tool for course development. Within a pandemic setting, however, where new technology is being implemented and novel approaches to teaching are being rolled out for the first time, this level of granularity may prove deficient. From a personal perspective, this is particularly relevant in managing student screen fatigue, capturing ideas for preferred use of digital functionality, and confirming the effectiveness of the distribution of time across different student group activities, all of which can be addressed in preparing follow-on sessions.

To effectively engage students in feedback, I recommend the following routine:

  • Close to the start of each new session, acknowledge student feedback, including through responding to suggestions;
  • Towards the end of the session, use the Collaborate chat function to provide a link to a feedback form involving no more than three questions.

The sense of partnership can be improved by allowing students to opt in or out for self-identifying, with the former option being available to provide the basis for an instructor-student conversation, if needed.

The change-activating feedback for teaching in an online setting, which I gleaned from this exercise was essentially of a generic nature. As such, it can be conveniently translated into the list below of general tips for instructors from a range of disciplines:

  1. Translate explicit navigational steps for finding resources into within-session learning activities.

An introductory session can often be an ideal setting for providing students with precise navigational steps and signposting for the identification of online resources. Where students are unfamiliar with the territory, the therapeutic value of these road map tools can be enhanced through well-crafted group activities for students.

2. Avoid the virtual equivalent of students being locked in the room.


Unlike in a face-to-face setting, students assigned to groups in an online setting do not have scope to disperse and mingle at the recommended start time of a break.  Closing breakout rooms and enforcing official breaks serves as the ‘school bell’ and can be invaluable in managing student concentration levels.

 Group activities

Encourage students to signal when group tasks in break-out rooms are completed.

3. Be receptive to teacher training!

More frequent use of a poll for tracking student understanding and use of the whiteboard pointer with presentation slides were welcome suggestions from one student.

4. Be open to recalibrating the scales.

With future sessions in view, per-session feedback is particularly helpful in identifying opportunities to adjust:

  • level of detail provided according to specialist topic;
  • time allocated to different types of interactive exercise;
  • the distribution of breaks: session components heavily weighted towards theory may lend themselves better to shorter learning bites than those involving mobility between a range of different interactive activities.

My personal experience of the per-session feedback exercise was exceptionally rewarding and heart-warming when using Collaborate for the first time in the teaching of statistics to medical students. It is an innovation which I expect to carry forward into future teaching of statistics. However, in the spirit of this blog post, it is instructive to lean into the student perspective:

A lot of the time at university, we give feedback and never get to see the improvements. Our suggestions are carried over to the next year, only for next year’s cohort to give the exact same feedback as we did. It’s like trying to fix a broken stool, but once you’ve tried your best to fix it, you’re told that you’re not able to sit on it and only future generations will have a slight chance at that luxury. The opportunity to give small doses of feedback throughout the course was a pleasant change. We could give feedback in the moment instead of having to save and remember our feedback for SSLC meetings. Some of our suggestions were implemented as soon as the next session, which made us feel valued and involved. This meant that issues were resolved quickly and satisfaction was high. As student representative, this certainly made my job a whole lot easier. Personally, seeing the course evolve in real time motivated me to give more feedback to see whether my input could mould the teaching structure and style even further. For once, we were able to sit on the stool to see the fruits of our feedback and engage deeper with the course.

Sophia Wong Ching Hwai

Thank you, Sophia; that stool awaits a few finishing touches in preparation for the new academic year! Thank you also for perceptive feedback regarding the presentation of content in this article.

Margaret MacDougall

Margaret MacDougall is a senior lecturer in medical statistics. She is responsible for providing advice on research design and statistical analysis to senior undergraduate medical students and plays a leading role in the teaching of statistics to intercalated honours BMedSci students. Margaret has conceived and managed eleven funded research and resource development projects in medical education and statistics. She has also served as an invited speaker or chair at a range of national and international events relating to learning and teaching in higher education, and organized the Annual Meeting for Teachers of Statistics in Medicine and Allied Health Sciences in 2008 and 2018. Margaret is passionate about using her research and resource development as a basis for curriculum innovation and enhancing medical student learning in statistics, particularly at undergraduate level. She is the editor of a book in progress for instructing medical educators on the teaching of randomised controlled trials and of the recently published Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice special issue Innovations and challenges in the teaching of statistics to non-specialists.

Sophia Wong Ching Hwai

Sophia Wong Ching Hwai is an undergraduate medical student and Student Representative for BMedSci in Health Sciences: Surgical Sciences. With a background in mentoring, tutoring, and widening access to medicine, Sophia is passionate about education and accessible learning. Other interests include baking, painting, and sketching, having displayed her art in the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery, and exploring the theme of women in Medicine and Surgery through art in a recent Student- Selected Component (SSC) project.

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