By Elizabeth Alsop
It was a month into the Spring semester, and I was teaching a British Literature survey for the second time. Only this time around, our class blog wasn’t nearly as lively as it had been in version 1.0. I wasn’t sure why; if anything, the blogging assignment and rubric were clearer, and most of the students were highly engaged during discussions.
Despite verbally soliciting suggestions from students, it wasn’t until I asked them to complete mid-semester course evaluations—brief, anonymous questionnaires, which they responded to and returned in class—that an answer emerged: I had made the deadline for submitting their posts too early. I had decided on 9pm after discovering that the later, 11pm submission time I had been using didn’t leave me enough waking hours to read their writing before the next day’s class. But as it turned out, a number of students worked shifts in local restaurants that didn’t end until 9pm. Although they could have completed the posts earlier, they procrastinated (in the way of many humans) and then—feeling defeated by the missed deadline—opted out of posting at all. This information came through anonymously, in writing, in the way it hadn’t publicly, in front of an instructor and peers they had known for only a few weeks.
After reading my students’ responses to the survey, I addressed them in the following class, and made changes as I could. As a class, we voted to compromise on the deadline: 10pm, with the understanding that there was wiggle room built in for the occasional late post. They also asked that I assign them particular days of the week to post; while I assumed I had been giving them welcome latitude, the freedom left some students floundering. So, I re-instituted the flexible blogging rotation I had used during previous semesters.
The change was immediate. People who hadn’t been posting began to, and the blog became an active, participatory, fun space, where students not only practiced textual analysis, but also brought in their extra-textual interests (Kinks lyrics! Captioned photos from a study-abroad walk across some Brontëan moors!)
In general, I’m a believer in the idea that “small changes in teaching,” to use James M. Lang’s phrase, can have an outsized impact in your classroom. That has certainly been the case for me. In my Brit Lit course, it was the most minor of tweaks—relaxing one constraint, adding another—that noticeably changed our class’s online and in-person dynamics. This point was reinforced, once again, by a talk I attended by CUNY professors Maura Smale and Mariana Regolado, on “College Students, Technology, and Time.” Among the many rich findings they shared from their recently published book was one especially memorable takeaway: that the default Blackboard “deadline” of 11:59pm can hurt CUNY students, since IT services generally end when the business day does. So, those who ran into problems when submitting work were often left without support.
But how would Smale and Regolado—and now many others—know this, if they hadn’t asked? Although formal student evaluations, of course, remain one of the most contested topics in higher education, there’s no downside I can think of to creating your own DIY methods for capturing student input: to designing your own feedback loops. My approach is generally to ask for such input around the 4 or 5-week point in the semester, using some version of this survey. At that point, it’s still early enough to make course corrections. I’ll often give a modified version again, at the end of class—a kind of “exit interview,” which I use to revise the course going forward (and which is often at least as instructive as the data furnished by institutional evaluations).
That said, I do think it’s important not just to ask for this feedback, but to be as transparent as possible about why you’re asking. By making explicit that you, too, are a learner—committed to improving as a teacher—you model for students the process of continual self-reflection that is essential for their own intellectual development.
Elizabeth Alsop is the Mellon Humanities Scholar of the CUNY Humanities Alliance, and the Assistant Director of the TLC.