Apr 28 2008

Improving Learning by Listening to Students

Published by under Innovation

As is reflected in numerous articles, conversations and email discussions, getting feedback on your teaching by looking at course evaluations provides limited information. There is no time for elaboration or follow-up. This year, in part because I was using a completely new teaching strategy, Team Based Learning, and wanted to know more about students’ experience with it, I accepted a colleague’s offer of spending half an hour with students to learn about their perceptions of the teaching strategy in greater depth.

Similar to the Student Group Instructional Diagnoses Gerry Hess referred to in his earlier blog, I prepared three questions for my colleague. What aspects of Team Based Learning had worked well over the semester? What could be improved? What suggestions did students have for adapting the Team Based Learning strategy to other courses? I introduced my colleague to my Remedies students at the beginning of the last class of the semester, and told them that she would collect their feedback anonymously. I left the room; she exited 30 minutes later with pages of notes.

When we talked about her findings the next day, it was fascinating to hear about students’ perceptions. A skilled interviewer, my colleague was able to listen to what was said as well as what was unsaid. She also asked a number of follow-up questions to clarify her understanding of students’ comments. Several of the findings were particularly surprising. For example, many of the students really liked the Team Based Learning model, as it reduced stress, greatly eliminated the sense of working in isolation, allowed them to learn more by hearing the classmates’ perspectives and reading their classmates’ analyses of problems, and made the time go faster because they were more engaged. But many of these students commented that this approach worked only because this was a small elective course and because most of them already knew each other. It would not work in a large required course, such as Torts, which is exactly where I am considering trying this strategy next fall.

Not only was the material from my colleague’s class interview fascinating, but it also provided helpful information that I hadn’t received from a variety of minute papers and course questionnaires I used during the semester. For example, by the end of the semester, students had heard from a guest speaker, had practiced making trial-level arguments about the validity of different kinds of remedies and how to measure them, completed a team assessment project and written a number of different documents. At the end of the course, they came up with a number of creative ideas for how we could have applied a number of different problems and different projects to the Team Based Learning.

It’s great to have this kind of in-depth feedback during and at the end of the course. I’ll take what my colleague learned and compare it to the student course evaluations. And even though they suggested otherwise, I am planning to use a Team Based Learning approach to teaching Torts and Legal Writing next year. I’m hopeful that I can persuade my colleague to again come to class and learn about how it worked the second time around.

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