There can be a tendency to worry about the degree of input from students in the pedagogical process. Here at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, we help support over two thousand class representatives across all Schools. Class reps serve to act as an intermediary between students and staff, bringing to light queries, concerns and constructive feedback at course-level, ensuring that there is a mutually reinforcing dialogue between staff and students, and in many cases providing an impetus for the refinement of courses. This representative role facilitates constructive dialogue at Staff-Student Liaison Committees (SSLCs).
Often, however, any changes that are made to a course will generally apply to the following academic year’s cohort of students. Moreover, SSLCs are in many cases not the most appropriate outlet for more local level, pedagogical queries specific to individual tutorial groups, which are better communicated and hence acted upon through a tutorial, seminar or workshop. Although we have a well-functioning class rep system, mid-semester feedback directly from individual students to staff ultimately highlights and enhances a very clear sense of community within Schools, and breaks down barriers between students and staff.
Universities like ours rely on end-of-course surveys. Although surveys are immensely useful, many students are unlikely to fully engage with survey questions. This is largely because by the time the course has finished, these students may feel that they have lost their stake in it. Students are far more likely to engage in the feedback process of a course if they knew that smaller changes could be made during the course. By providing platforms for mid-semester feedback from students, a more conversational tone is imbued into the pedagogical process.
This system operates in several Schools already. In the School of Engineering, for the last two years, a “start-stop-continue” sheet has been used one per course, issued in the middle of the course. In the School of Mathematics, a similar system is employed, whereby academics hand out ‘feedback forms’, which are explicitly meant to promote informal feedback about the pedagogy adopted in individual workshops or lectures. In the School of Veterinary Medicine, a rolling ’What Matters to Ewe’ feedback system operates in addition to use of Top Hat to gather feedback and facilitate conversations whilst the course is still running. Some staff members within the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures also encourage informal feedback to staff directly from individual students.
It is not that these platforms for mid-semester feedback are designed to encourage or allow students to overhaul the content of a course as presented in a handbook: any possible changes that could be made are only feasible if they align with the relevant course objectives. If these changes cannot be made, then students should still be told why. It may seem merely symbolic, but it means a great deal to many students when they feel that they are being listened to by staff. These changes will largely relate to pedagogy. For example, a group of students in a tutorial may be in general agreement that they would prefer to spend less time asking individual questions to a student who gave a presentation. They may rather spend more time engaging in a class-wide discussion, pertaining more specifically to areas of that week’s course content which they want to interrogate and understand further. In other cases, students may want more direction from their tutor in their class discussion – this is particularly important for pre-Honours students who may not initially be too confident in tutorial settings, and who would rather have a sense that the conversation is being steered in the relevant directions.
Establishing this system allows students to become more active partners in the pedagogical process. As Professor Susan Rhind, Director of Veterinary Teaching and Assistant Principal for Assessment and Feedback, has highlighted: “We believe that a crucial aspect of student experience is creating a community where students feel they have multiple channels through which to communicate with staff. This can bring students and staff closer together and help promote a shared understanding of challenges, and the need to support collaboration in finding solutions. Successful mid-course feedback is about generating dialogue and fostering mutual understanding.”
By creating platforms for mid-semester feedback, students are given a greater stake in their courses, staff can ensure that small and minor suggestions are heard throughout students’ time at the University, rather than at the end, and a more bespoke, conversational learning experience is established.
Watch Professor Iain Gordon, Head of the School of Mathematics, talking about how mid-semester feedback has been a success in his School.
Come along to a Practical Strategies staff session on mid-semester feedback on Monday 17 October 2016, 12-2pm (Practical Strategies for… keeping in touch with how students are experiencing courses). Book now via the IAD website.