CEU Grant Allows Near Real-Time Student Feedback and Course Adjustments

Students are familiar with course and professor evaluations but some might not have had the opportunity to give mid-course feedback that could improve their learning experience. CEU Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy Tamara Steger wanted to see what kind of difference it could make, so she applied for and won a CEU Teaching Development Grant and is working on the project in consultation with the University's Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

"The CEU Teaching Development Grants were established to strengthen the capacity of faculty members to experiment, innovate, and continuously examine and improve their teaching," said Sally Schwager, director of CTL. "In the case of Tamara's project, we started by sharing research on student learning and the value of frequent and sustained informal feedback. Now, her project is yielding new insights that she can use in redesigning elements of her course. It also is producing concrete strategies that can be shared with other faculty."

Steger and her PhD student assistant Anna Varfolomeeva (Nationalism Studies '12) have implemented assessments and subsequent changes in Steger's Environmental Politics class with good results.

"With feedback, you can adapt the class," Steger said. "You don't change what the class is about but how you teach it. We know some concrete things from research about how students learn but this helps to further target the specific cohort of students."

At the beginning of the semester, Steger and Varfolomeeva asked students to describe their most profound learning experience in life. "That was really rich," Steger noted. "There were a number of themes that we identified. For example, they like to have focused social interaction and the opportunity to interact with their professors and teaching assistants in a social setting. I organized a social outing and invited some alumni so they could talk about the previous year's class projects and the feedback was really positive."

Steger also did some concept/diagram mapping with students to address the different ways they learn and even implemented a suggestion box. "I wanted to get feedback on two classes – one was a lecture and other was more like learning games. The suggestion box is anonymous and I leave it there for about 10 mins after class before collecting it." Steger wants her students – even those who aren't comfortable speaking up in class – to have the opportunity to express themselves regarding the way they learn best and what is and isn't working for them in the classroom.

"It's a lot of work to take feedback and make changes, but you feel more connected somehow," Varfolomeeva said.

Steger and Varfolomeeva log every piece of feedback they receive. Admittedly it's a lot of work but the reaction from the students is very positive, Steger noted. “My informal sense is that in addition to always being engaged in their individual project, they are also invested in the class itself.” 

Some of the changes have been basic, like better time management in class and adjusting break times. Regarding class content, students reflected that they really want to hear more about the topic of discourse and power so Steger is trying to work this in more than she would otherwise.

For one of the mid-course feedback activities, CTL's Schwager visited the classroom to facilitate a discussion about team projects. Grant recipients may choose to work with CTL through all phases of their teaching innovation projects. Steger and Varfolomeeva are most interested in individuals' roles on the team, how the teams are functioning together, and the kind of methodology being implemented. Steger also noted that students are very busy and sometimes overwhelmed at this time of year and being able to speak to an impartial observer allows them the opportunity to express themselves further.

"With the team questions, they had to think: What do I bring to a team and what do I need from my team to succeed?" Varfolomeeva said. "It's a shift toward them thinking: What do I need to learn?"

Steger and Schwager read the midterm evaluations and summarized them into three concrete points that could be discussed in class. Students wanted more time to work on their projects, more flexible office hours, and more mentorship time with both Steger and Varfolomeeva. In response, Steger and Varfolomeeva offered immediate after-class (or scheduled by email) consultations with each project team so they could have some personalized time with just the instructors and the team members to discuss individual project issues. "I think this is a critical aspect of the project as a whole in that you get to figure out the real issues for students on a more detailed level than you would otherwise," Steger noted.

"Teachers and professors are experts in curriculum but students are experts on how they learn," Steger said. "We are trying to tap into their expertise. What I've learned from the students has been incredibly valuable."

The grants are available on a competitive basis with funds up to 2,000 euros per project per academic year. For more information, including application link, visit http://ctl.ceu.edu/node/43156. CEU teaching faculty members who hold formal CEU faculty appointment with the University over the period of the project are eligible to apply. The deadline for the spring cycle is March 31.