“As long as you get one good chance to talk with a student, you can continue that conversation through email, or quickly after class, or in more office house, because you’ve started somewhere, you are more connected as an instructor”. – Dr. Patrick Finn.
Teaching is an unpredictable and ever changing experience. Sometimes a course has to be changed and reconfigured while being taught. This was the case for Dr. Patrick Finn’s Introduction to Drama (DRAM 240) class in Fall/Winter 2016/2017. A change in learning environments led to the opportunity to experiment with how the class was taught.
The course had approximately 50 students, and was initially booked into a classroom that did not fit all of them. Students had to sit in the doorway and even slightly outside the room. This was not a positive way for students to learn. Dr. Finn tried to accommodate students as best as he could, but there was not much he could do. Part-way through the course, his request to teach in the Taylor Institute (TI) forum was approved. This unique space was not only large enough for all of the students to work comfortably, it also contained flexible seating styles, extensive technology options and more opportunities for unique learning styles. Dr. Finn and his students were now able to work differently than they could in a traditional space. Although there were mixed results about what worked and what did not, the communication and partnership that Dr. Finn had with his students demonstrated the importance of student feedback in course design.
Communication with Students
After the course moved into the TI forum, Dr. Finn and his students were introduced to all of the options for working in the space, from the movable seating to the different methods of integrating technology. They experimented with different ways of learning in the class. Dr. Finn likes to keep his classes active and engaged, with a lot of class discussion. In DRAM 240, the class decided to try smaller group discussion, with students organizing themselves into groups by interest. For example, students with a passion for acting worked together in one group, while students interested in directing formed another. Groups would all discuss the same topics for part of the class, and then everyone would come together and a representative from each group would share the main points from the smaller discussions. Dr. Finn liked how this worked, but he wanted feedback from his students.
Although there are many ways of obtaining student feedback on a course, such as USRI data, mid-term surveys and monitoring formative feedback assessments, Dr. Finn integrated two additional methods. The first was student interviews. He invited all of the students in his class to meet with him throughout the semester. This allowed him to hear firsthand how the course was going, ask specific questions about different aspects of the course and get suggestions from students who otherwise might not have shared them. Some of the feedback that students gave was integrated immediately into the course, while others was noted and kept for future courses.
The other opportunity for students to provide feedback on the course was a “performance review” of the course. Students completed short, written reviews for plays put on in Calgary throughout the course. Dr. Finn gave students the option of writing one review about the course, using the same format as the performance reviews that they were used to. Many students used the opportunity to share their experience in the class and suggest a few improvements. These reviews earned bonus marks for students in the course, but were not graded for the content.
Student feedback on the group work was generally positive, but had some criticisms. Some students felt that their group representatives sometimes missed important points or conflicting opinions during the full class discussion. Others were initially excited to work with groups who shared their same interest for the entire course, but found that some group members didn’t participate fully and didn’t create as engaging of a discussion as the could have. Dr. Finn will consider this feedback when figuring out how to hold group and class discussions in the future.
Student choice and flexibility are important aspects of good course design, but there is a limit to the amount of choice that should be offered. Some students really enjoy being able to make the course personal to them, but others thrive with a lot of structure. Too much choice can be overwhelming to students. “Active classroom environments often privilege the extroverts” says Dr. Finn, noting that students who suggest ideas in class are the ones who prefer more raucous class discussions and activities, while those who like quieter, more independent environments can be overlooked. His next challenge will be finding ways to combine the ideas of all types of students and their learning styles into a course, with a little more structure than this time. He is looking forward to where his students will take him in the future. Communication and contact with students is one of the best ways to ensure that a course is promoting student engagement and learning. It is also an excellent way for instructors to ensure that they are meeting their course objectives.