Feedback from students – who cares?

Post by: Ruth Moeller. Cartoon by: Karl Horton.

Feedback from students – who cares? I do!

I couldn’t believe my ears! Sitting in an assessment workshop, a fellow in the group next to me was discussing the CES, the university’s student feedback scheme. “I just throw my survey in the bin! The first time I read my survey results I was so depressed so now I don’t bother, I just bin them. All you can do is try your best and if they aren’t happy with that, what can you do!” I was shocked; in all my career as an educator, I have been conscious of the value and importance of feedback from student/participants.

To be honest, sometimes it’s not nice, and can be even downright frustrating and hurtful, “given all the effort I put in!” But I ignore it at my peril!

Distilling my teaching efforts down into the CES, especially the six questions that, in Australia, make up the Good Teaching Scale (GTS) feels simplistic but taking time to unpack it can be valuable. The CES is the ‘official’ feedback on my teaching but there are a range of other ways I get feedback that I can use to tailor, guide and reinforce my teaching. There are the intuitive, informal ways such as: are they attending; asking questions; slumped over the desks gently snoring; asking and answering questions? Then there are some simple strategies that you can use to get a sense of what they have learned such as the muddiest point or list three thing you learned today.  These techniques provide instant feedback on the learning occurring in your class.

Let’s look more broadly at how I get feedback on the subject and how it is being taught. When I talk about feedback what do I mean? Is it about how much the students like me? What they are learning? What they are understanding (or not)? How much they are enjoying the course? To get useful feedback, you need to think about what you want to know. Asking “Do you enjoy/like the course” gets different information to asking, “What have you learned?” A way to determine what to ask is to consider, what will you do with the answer?  If the students “enjoyed the classes finishing early”, it’s not particularly helpful, but if they “learned how to analyse statistical information to draw conclusions about …” that you can do something with it, ie. repeat it next time. Likewise, asking about what they don’t like may give you an unproductive list, whereas requesting ideas for improvement is more likely to provide constructive suggestions.

Recently after the mid semester break, I asked my students:

• How’s it going so far?

• What are the key things you have learned?

• What would you like to know more about?

• Is there anything else you would like to add?

I gave them a chance to get their thoughts together first. Next, they discussed the questions with a partner and then shared with the group (Think, pair, share). I noted their responses on the whiteboard – this allowed me to show them how much they have learned, keep a record for follow-up or further development and finally, demonstrated that I take what they say seriously.

I did try to use Twitter to get student feedback from the same group but with only one tweet, I need to re-think that approach. Any suggestions on this are welcome!

At the end of the semester, I also seek feedback using a model I came across in a PD session several years ago. Using the focus questions:

• What have you learned in this course?

• How could this course be improved for next year’s students?

• Is there anything else you would like to add?

Students are given five minutes thinking time to answer the questions for themselves, then in groups they discuss and clarify individual responses and develop a group response that is captured on butcher’s paper. This serves two purposes: firstly students can share and compare their learning and be reminded of what they have learned. And secondly through discussion, they clarify their ideas and moderate individual input to provide feedback that represents the broader ideas of the group. I have found this strategy to be really valuable because if you have had student comments like:

• The tutes are a waste of time

• The assessment wasn’t clear

• Need more time

• Boring

you’re left wondering “What!?” Using this model stops these valueless comments (valueless because you are left uncertain as to what they mean and importantly what to do with them) because the students have to explain what they mean and that’s what is captured by the group on the BP.

Some words of warning: Don’t over-survey your students; a colleague was telling me that she used the GTS questions at the mid-point of her subject to get feedback from her students, but at the end, when the official survey was done, students were jaded, responding dismissively to a survey that they felt they had already completed. CES fatigue!

Like with prayer, sometime the answer is “No!” – I strongly advocate seeking and addressing student feedback. But that doesn’t mean you need to accept and act on all the input. As the teaching professional, there may be sound professional or disciplinary based reasons you chose not to change and, letting students know what you are willing and not willing to change demonstrates you respect their input. But ultimately you manage the learning environment.

For me, feedback from students is an ongoing process, as we are in the learning process together.

Native or immigrant – Exploring foreign territory in online learning

Post by: Meredith Seaman

Image by Ed Yourdon. Source: Image from Flickr Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

There is sometimes a perception that ALL tertiary students have grown up with technology and are natives of the online environment, and that teaching staff, well, they just have to catch up.

I beg to differ…

Working with staff as they prepare for teaching, I come across a vast range of different styles and views in relation to using newer educational technologies, some keen, proficient and eager to experiment and others overwhelmed, nervous or disinterested.

A recent study found that there was significant diversity in both staff and students in terms of technical experiences and proficiency in Australia universities. Students were not always ‘digital natives’ and academics were not always ‘immigrants’ as has sometimes been claimed. Given my experience, it doesn’t surprise me that they found great diversity across ages and groups, and a wide range of perceptions about the advantages of using technology for learning and teaching. Even if we don’t buy into the immigrant/native analogy, both students and staff can at times feel foreign and lost. As reflective journals, lecture capture, web conferencing, twitter, blogs and video (some explored in recent blog posts to TTTT) become more common, more students and colleagues will be exposed to an increasing range of technologies in learning and teaching. So how can we support better learning and teaching through technology and enable both colleagues and students from a range of backgrounds and technical proficiencies to flourish?

My personal understanding of what it might be like to be in ‘foreign territory’ in an educational online context, comes from my own recent experience as a distance education student. Thrown in the deep end with two other students, who had had very minimal exposure to Web 2.0 technologies but were keen to learn, we were asked to use an emerging educational technology to develop and present an assignment about education and technology. A fellow team member suggested a wiki and we were off. In our case, the technical aspects (setting up and navigating wikispaces which was very new to the other students), and visual and instructional design aspects of the task completely took over from the content and intended learning outcomes of the assignment in our interaction as a group. On top of additional time constraints which we faced as mature aged students with young families and/or in full time employment, the challenges of working and being assessed as a group, the assignment almost derailed. We ended up using email to communicate outside of the wiki and got back on track. The difficulties weren’t because wikispaces was difficult to use, but because of the challenges in sustaining good group work and communication while interacting online in an unstructured, unfamiliar space, in this case with others we hadn’t even met.

I learnt a lot from this activity, and apply it in my work with teaching staff. Like Clare suggests in her recent post, there needs to be a clear sense of purpose as to why to adopt technology for a particular tasks, and clear attention paid to the motivation for students (to foster the kind of willingness and ‘good attitude’ which is so important to successful learning). For our assignment the benefit that we should learn about wikis for education to inform our role as educators was clear, yet it still felt like an unnecessarily add on to an assessment task, and very time consuming in itself. While technology can support communication between peers for distance students, the dry unfamiliar territory of the wiki was not ideal for this in our case. We tended to develop content separately, and then publish, rather than truly collaborate and develop ideas relevant to the assignment as a group. The superficial design and technical aspects unfortunately took over. Other tools, like chat or skype or google docs (or even email which we ended up resorting to) would perhaps have been better for timely communication and collaboration, and would have supported the development of the wiki. But the solution to such challenges isn’t using other tools or technology training (though time and support to learn new technologies is terribly important), but in good teaching practice and design.

So what did I learn about good teaching practice and design using educational technologies from that experience?

That we should:

  • provide time for students to play and explore technologies in advance of the ‘meat’ of the assignment work
  • provide clear structure/scaffolding to support how we were expected to work with the online tools (and most importantly AS A GROUP if that’s a key aspect of the task)
  • make an explicit link should be between the learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and the process of developing new technical skills

and, the benefits of being:

  • required to work in a group with different levels of ability, and with different individual strengths and weaknesses
  • encouraged to explore new technologies
  • able to experience the technology from a student perspective as an educator


More on recent research into ‘immigrants and natives’ and attitudes about technology in learning and teaching:

Educating the Net Generation: Implications for Learning and Teaching in Australian Universities
Open University research explodes myth of ‘digital native’
The impact of web-based lecture technologies on current and future practices in learning and teaching
Teaching, technology and educational design: the architecture of productive learning environments

Education vs/and Entertainment

Post by Ruth Moeller
Image by: Lost Albatross

I can not believe I am saying this but I am inspired to learn computer programming! As someone with a love/hate relationship with technology (love it when it works/hate it when it doesn’t), you should wonder what has brought this on? I have been cruising Youtube, looking for ideas and resources for my education students (of which there are many, resources that is, but that is a post for another day) when I came across Richard Buckland, and was inspired.

Richard teaching teaches computer programming at UNSW and has posted his lectures online as part of an access project. By the student comments on each lecture, I can see I am not the only one impressed.

When you look at the lectures, and I encourage you to do so, you feel that he is talking to you, or at least a small group of students, not a full lecture theatre. Besides having a t-shirt collection worthy of Sheldon Cooper (see The Big Bang Theory), he exudes a passion for his subject, and sharing that with his students. Importantly from my perspective, he uses good teaching strategies to engage the students.

Watch the first lecture in the subject, and see how he starts to learn student names, cleverly deals with a lighting problem using a 20th century teaching icon, and links his subject to the previous one, even commenting on the students’ assessment from this subject. Can I say, that as a potential student, I would be hooked – he has passion that he wants me to share and is interested in ME, and this is all within the first 20 minutes of the lecture.

I am sure that this will cause many to say “that’s OK for him, but I’m not entertaining and my subject is boring”. Now we have the age old conundrum, entertainment vs education. I understand it would be wonderful if we all had a natural gift for entertainment but for most, teaching is a craft, a series of strategies and techniques held together by practice rather than an art for which we have a gift.

Richard is entertaining but he also uses a range of teaching strategies to engage his students with the content. In my opinion, entertainment can be a trap, you go to a lecture or presentation and it is fun, the presenter is amusing and sharp, has great technology and there is a buzz in the room. But what happens once you leave; what did you learn? Are you just left with a “feel good” factor – not content – sizzle without the sausage?

The trap is being teacher centred, making classes “all about me”, with student laughter being the ultimate reward. On the other hand, good teaching is student focussed, with the learning based on what the students are doing and the aim is to ensure they have achieved the outcomes of the subject. I think this view can be liberating for it values learning over entertainment, student achievement over the feel good factor. Don’t get me wrong, enjoyment and fun with learning is to be desired, not aimed for. For me realistically as an educator, if I can provide good learning by what I do and the strategies I use, I have met my contract with my students.

Having said all that, have a look at Richard, see what you think – consider not only what he is doing but how he does it. Are you as inspired as I am to take up computer programming? If so, I will see you at the lecture.

Teaching with Twitter (part one)

Dr Inger Mewburn is a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Research, RMIT University. She co-ordinates the On Track generic research skill program at RMIT, teaches online as well as writing for and editing The Thesis Whisperer blog. The rest of the time she listens to research students who want to tell her their problems and writes on the subject of research education.
Being a Twitter enthusiast is a bit like being a cult member. Those who ‘get it’ are your instant friends, while those that don’t tend react with puzzlement – or pity. I can understand why Twitter divides people. It is absurdly easy to sign up and start tweeting, but it is quite difficult to work out how to use and enjoy it.

In this series of posts I am going to attempt to demystify Twitter and make some suggestions about how you can use it in your teaching. But I want to make you think about uses beyond the classroom too. Twitter can be used to help you build a ‘personal brand’ and connect with people who share your enthusiasm for certain subjects. If you are careful about how you work with Twitter, you can become a ‘trusted source’ and build a substantial follower base who will carry your words much further than you imagine. There is clear value, especially for sessional lecturers, in creating a recognisable brand presence in Twitter – you never know which future employers are listening!

The first step to successful tweeting is to understand how the platform works. For those of you who are yet to be acquainted with the mechanics of the platform, Twitter is a ‘micro blogging’ service where people post ‘tweets’ of up to 140 characters.  You can follow anyone (unless they block you) and arrange them into lists. You can be followed by anyone – unless you lock your account and force people to ‘knock on your door’ to enter. When you log in to Twitter your timeline shows the tweets of all the people you follow and anything they have re-tweeted (RT). The Tweets may be just plain text, or include web links and special searchable links called ‘hashtags’ (#).

I recommend you have an account that is set aside just for academic work (you can always have another, possibly locked, account to talk with your friends). Use your own name, or choose a name which will resonate with the topics you are teaching and researching. For example, I call myself @thesiswhisperer, which simultaneously publicises my blog and announces to anyone cruising by that my purpose is to help people to write a PhD or Masters thesis. Make your bio concise and signal the topics you are interested in talking about in 160 characters so that people can understand who you are. For example, this is how I describe myself:

Research Fellow @RMIT University. Does research on research ( yes – really), writes for and edits the Thesis Whisperer blog and thinks about stuff.

The main value of Twitter in teaching is the conversations it enables and the ability to harness the wisdom of the crowd to find useful information. But what puts many people off is that the more people you follow, the faster the tweets multiply in your timeline until there are literally too many to read. The first thing to do is relax – imagine Twitter as a rushing waterfall of information and noise. You can’t drink from the waterfall by sitting under it with your mouth open; you hold a cup under it.  Since you will only be able to catch a small amount of what is going by in your cup, you need to ensure you are catching more information than noise.

There are three different ways to ‘tune into’ Twitter and sort information from noise: be selective about whom you follow, use hashtags and compile lists. I’ll tackle each of these in turn.

Your students, and any other followers you attract, will look at who you follow to work out who you are and what you value. Use this opportunity to send the right signals by being careful about whom you include in your ‘waterfall’. If you are a teaching and researching politics you may follow politicians, political journalists and perhaps certain bloggers; if you are also interested in knitting you would include other knitters and perhaps supply shops and so on.

Don’t worry if you end up following lots of people; you can use lists to organise them. When you make a list you are essentially making an alternate timeline to view. The key advantage of a list is that the timeline can be viewed by others, so I like to think about myself as a curator of an art gallery here. I try to make lists of people that others will want to read.

Lists can be used to track and monitor your audience. I have over 2000 followers. If I followed everyone back I would have a really crowded timeline, but I am still interested in what they are saying, so I organise all my followers into different lists. The lists are broadly speaking organised into interests – sort of like online ‘birds of a feather’ groups. I can scan these alternative timelines when I have time and get a sense of what conversations are going on and pick out interesting links. To ease this process I feed all my lists into an aggregator (, but more on that another time.

Hashtags are a powerful way for a teacher to start to organise materials and discussion. A hastag placed before a word, or string of words with no spaces, turns the piece of text into a special sort of ‘search link’; when you click on it your timeline changes to show all the tweets containing that hashtag. Hashtags can be used to make informal, adhoc chat channels. A good example of this is #phdchat, which is used by many PhD students to find each other and share information. Every now and then the list convenor organises a real time chat with a topic.

I hope this post has given you some ideas on the way that Twitter can be used in your teaching practice. In the next post I will talk some more about the content of Tweets and how to craft more informative and compelling ones.