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Using Feedback Sessions to Improve the Quality of Student Assignments

Suzanne L. Medina

CSU Dominguez Hills

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Several years ago, I reached a major crossroads in my teaching. Like many of my colleagues, I complained about the quality of student work. Yet I was determined to turn the situation around. In most cases, it wasn't that my students were incapable of completing my assignments. What was it? As I thought about it, I realized that some students needed more guidance. Others were confused because they did not entirely understand what was expected of them. Still others misinterpreted my instructions. The detailed descriptions of assignments helped somewhat, but they did not solve the problem entirely. As a result, student papers fell short of my expectations. Furthermore, it was disturbing to realize that my students were not having the instructional experience that I had intended for them. This was all so unnecessary, I thought. If only I could provide them with direction in the form of "feedback" while they were working on their assignments, not afterwards.

After giving it much thought, I found a way of providing the direction that students so sorely needed: "feedback sessions." As the term implies, students meet with me to receive feedback on their projects. It is an opportunity for students to ask questions and for me, as their professor, to point out ways that they can improve the quality of their projects in order to earn higher grades. Students are appreciative of the opportunity to receive feedback before turning in the assignment; it is a very positive experience for students and professor alike. Feedback sessions are generally held during a class meeting time, so there is no lecture on that day. When planning my syllabus, I generally schedule a feedback session after a project has been assigned, yet before it is due. Students therefore have ample opportunity to revise their papers before actually turning them in for a grade.

The week before the feedback session, I post a "Feedback Sign-up Sheet" that lists available appointment times (See Figure 1). Many of my assignments are completed by teams of three students, so each team signs up for one time slot. If my course enrollment approximates 30 students, then during our 2.75 hour class time, I can usually see 10 groups of students for 15 minutes each. If the course enrollment is closer to 45, then I can comfortably meet with 15 groups for 10 minutes each. During the days on which I hold feedback sessions, students make use of the remaining class time to work on their projects with team members.

Ways of Using Feedback Sessions

The nature of the feedback session depends upon the assignment. Sometimes students are expected to share their ideas during their designated appointment times. For example, in one of my courses, students are required to conduct a case-study investigation. Therefore, I ask them to come prepared to their feedback sessions with several research questions. Together we refine the wording of the research question, the number and characteristics of subjects, and instrumentation details. The students leave knowing that their ideas are acceptable and how they should proceed from there. On other occasions, students are asked to bring their project drafts to the feedback session. For example, in my English-as-a-Second-Language (E.S.L) methods course, students are required to bring drafts of their lesson plans. During the feedback sessions, I study the drafts to make certain they have interpreted the assignment correctly and to see if they have met the criteria that I will use when grading their assignments. When students are assigned larger projects I tend to hold two feedback sessions. These allow me to check the students' progress at critical points in the process. For example, after assigning a lengthy research paper, I hold one feedback session to check student progress during the early phases of the research process. I ask them to bring in their topic outlines as well as the book and journal articles they plan to cite in their papers. Among other things, this discourages plagiarism since students know they must present their source documents. Later I hold a second feedback session to review the students' rough drafts. There is an additional benefit to holding double feedback sessions for large projects: Students have no choice but to pace themselves. Clearly, the feedback session can be used in any number of ways depending upon its intended purpose.

Tips on Holding Feedback Sessions

Over the years I have learned what distinguishes a successful feedback session from a less successful one. In order to engage in feedback sessions that produce optimal results I suggest the following:

  • Have students sign up for their appointment the week before the feedback session. My sheet has a place for times (e.g., 10- or 15-minute time slots), student names, and even e-mail addresses in the event that I need to get in touch with students.


  • Be strict about the time limits or appointments will back up. Personally, I find it difficult to watch the time when I am listening so intently to the students. Using a small digital or mechanical kitchen timer solves this problem easily enough.


  • Ask students to be prompt for their appointments. If they are late it will throw off the entire schedule.


  • Remind students to make good use of the time when they are not meeting with you.


  • Don't forget to allow a time for you to take a well-deserved break. It is rather exciting to hear about all of the students' projects, but it can also be mentally taxing as well.


  • With time so limited, it is important to keep students on task. One strategy is to write on the blackboard key topics that you want each group to address. Another is to ask specific questions.


  • A week or weeks before the feedback sessions are held, clearly communicate what students should bring with them. Will it be a draft, an outline, or ideas? Rarely have my students come to the table unprepared.


Benefits

There are numerous benefits associated with the feedback sessions. For that reason, I make heavy use of them in all of my courses. Here is a partial list of the benefits.

  • Since I initiated the feedback sessions the quality of student work has greatly improved. With a clearer sense of what is expected, students tend to earn higher grades.


  • Feedback sessions place the students on the correct path. As a result, a larger number of students actually have the learning experience that I originally intended for them.


  • I feel greater satisfaction about my teaching in general since I am more confident that my students clearly understand what is expected.


  • Students feel more confident about what they are doing. In fact, at the conclusion of the feedback session, students frequently tell me they are clearer and less stressed about the assignment than they were previously.


  • Feedback sessions also allow me an opportunity to interact on a one-on-one basis with my students. It is truly a delightful experience to have this type of interaction with students since it is not always possible for them to see me during office hours.


  • As students wait to see me, they often overhear the feedback I provide other students. This is very beneficial to students since they frequently share the same problems as their peers.


  • The feedback sessions also provide me with much valuable information about my teaching. I learn about areas in which students are struggling. This challenges me to find new ways of facilitating student learning. As a result I make changes to my syllabus, assignment description sheets, or techniques.


  • Lecturing week after week can be boring for everyone, yet there is nothing boring about feedback sessions since no two are like. They stimulate me in ways that lectures cannot. Therefore, feedback sessions provide a welcomed change for professor and students alike.


  • The feedback sessions also have improved my teaching evaluations. In fact, on the subjective evaluations, it is not uncommon for students to comment on the usefulness of the feedback sessions. Quantitative evaluations have also been positive. Increasing numbers of students have indicated that my expectations are clear.


Using the feedback sessions has helped me to make "lemonade out of lemons." What began as a frustrating experience has helped me devise an instructional solution that has had innumerable benefits. Not only has the quality of student work improved, but students are actually having the instructional experience that I had envisioned for them originally. Although the feedback session requires a professor to set aside class time that might be otherwise spent on lecture or discussions, it is time well spent. I now make heavy use of the feedback session in all of my courses because of the benefits just described. Hopefully, you too will benefit similarly from its use.

Posted July 8, 2003
Modified August 13, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2003 by Suzanne L. Medina.

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