Improve Your Teaching and Your Students' Learning

By Timpson, William M. | Academe, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Improve Your Teaching and Your Students' Learning


Timpson, William M., Academe


You can only tell whether your teaching is improving if you can be sure of what your students are learning.

In my two decades of work on postsecondary instruction, I have been constantly reminded of areas where we as instructors could improve teaching and deepen student learning: how we could move beyond content transmission; how we could benefit more from the published literature on instructional effectiveness, improvement, and innovation; how we could tap into more collegial support and assistance; how we could challenge students to do more to articulate their needs and preferences; and how, then, we could share more of what we learn through the scholarship of teaching.

Yet I see very few campuses that have professional development programs that can make a real difference at the classroom level. Moreover, it is the rare campus leader who has the background or vision to push much beyond the surface of instructional effectiveness and focus on student learning. My professional development efforts at three research universities and my scholarly work on postsecondary instructional improvement and innovation have taught me, however, that instructors can take steps to improve teaching and learning even on campuses that offer little support for such work.

Soliciting Student Feedback

In several publications, I have described the importance of feedback to student learning as well as our own teaching. A book I recently co-authored with Sue Doe, Concepts and Choices for Teaching: Meeting the Challenges in Higher Education, describes the range of instructional options that we have and how each approach is strengthened by feedback. In particular, I have explored the role of feedback in the performing arts, where directors, choreographers, and performers are engaged in a continuous process of communication, feedback, exploration, and improvement. (See my book Teaching and Performing, co-authored with colleague Suzanne Burgoyne.)

In my own classes, I routinely conduct a midsemester student feedback session to identify problems while there is still time to address them. I usually take about thirty minutes to reflect on what has happened to date, both positive and negative, and consider possible areas for improvement.

Using the standard course survey gives students practice with me form that will be used at the end of semester, a practice that is recommended by psychometricians as a way to increase "rater reliability." I ask every student to complete the form individually and to list three aspects of the course that they appreciate and three concerns that they have. I also insist that they link any concerns to concrete recommendations for improvement.

After ten minutes or so, I invite them to join me in a full class discussion of some of these items. I will ask a student to note an aspect of the course that he or she appreciates and then ask the student to explain why he or she appreciates it. My intent is to encourage students to explain their reasoning in ways that others can understand. I then ask everyone to indicate his or her level of agreement on the scoring sheet using a scale that ranges from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." I ask for a show of hands for each of these responses so that I can better gauge the experience of the entire class and, if necessary, explore any disagreements further, then and there.

For example, in a recent graduate class on classrooms and communication, one student noted how she appreciated the written feedback I had been giving her. When polled, everyone else agreed. In turn, I said that I appreciated hearing this since I always wonder whether students really value the comments that I write and whether the time I take to write comments is worth the effort.

When I next turn to student concerns, I insist that students offer concrete recommendations, and we repeat the public polling and discussion. A few students who were enrolled in both of my classes this spring mentioned that many of the short reflection papers were due in the same week. …

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