Using Student Feedback: ENCI 645

Using assessment data to inform future choices

Background
Dr. Markus Dann is a professor in the department of Civil Engineering, where he teaches courses of various sizes and levels. His graduate-level course, Risk Analysis (ENCI 645) is open to students pursuing any of the three graduate degrees in engineering: Master of Engineering (MEng), Master of Science (MSc) and PhD. Dr. Dann recently redeveloped this course in order to better fit with the unique range of students he teaches. He used student feedback to improve the learning in his course.

Improving Assessment

The first time Dr. Dann taught the course, he assigned students an open-ended group project. They had to create a research proposal, paper and presentation on a topic of their choice related to the course content. It was designed to mirror the submission and presentation of research at a conference. This was not effective for the students in the class for a couple of reasons. The openness of the project made it difficult to grade. Some groups chose topics that were relatively simple and did not demonstrate the extent of their learning. Others chose overly complex topics, which caused them incredibly high stress and workloads when completing the project. Dr. Dann found that the variability in the projects made it impossible for him to be consistent in how he graded them.

Students also had a lot of trouble with the group aspect of the project. Although many graduate-level courses involve group work, engineering students often find this impractical. Students pursuing different degrees all had different schedules and could not work out time to meet. For example, many MEng students work in industry during their degree and are only on campus for their classes. MSc and PhD students are present at the university more often, but are also working on their independent research. The project had to be done near the end of the semester, as they needed knowledge from the entire course in order to do it. This is a busy time for all of the students, which added additional stress to the students.

Dr. Dann found that his disappointment in the project was reflecting the student feedback for the course. Most students said they enjoyed the course and its content, but found that the unintended issues with the project made it difficult. Many did not get much value from the project. There was agreement that a different approach would be more effective for this type of course.

When redesigning the course for the next year, Dr. Dann took this feedback into consideration. He noted that many courses that students take in their graduate degrees have group projects, so they still have the opportunity to collaborate in other settings. He decided to replace the project in his course with a series of seven assignments. These assignments covered the same material as the project, but split it throughout the semester. When creating the assignments, Dr. Dann ensured that they were equal to the project in how much time, effort and understanding of content is required, just in a different format. Students did not have to struggle to find time to meet with peers and they had fairly consistent amounts of work to complete over the course of the semester.

Outcomes

Dr. Dann saw improved student engagement and performance in the course. He got much better feedback for the course. Students found that they understood the content well, because they were working on assignments throughout the semester and always had to be on top of the work. The amount of grading that Dr. Dann had to do increased because of the assignments, but it was more straightforward than the project. Students are given fair grades and have better evidence about how well they are doing with the course content.

Assessment is an ever-changing process. Student feedback is an important thing to consider when trying to redevelop and improve a course. When students see the value in an assessment method, they always have a better learning experience.

-Ashley Weleschuk