If you peek inside most introductory science survey course lecture halls during class, what are you most likely to see?  I would wager you will see a professor standing in front of a projected screen or giant white board delivering information to a relatively full—but not entirely full—lecture hall of students, many of which are copying down whatever is on the screen verbatim.  Maybe the professor is enthusiastic, passionate, and funny.  Or, maybe the professor is quiet, demur, and monotone.  Regardless, is this the image of what you want your colleagues to see when they walk by your lecture?  Are you wholly satisfied with this version of “teaching?”  Perhaps there is another way.

Imagine for a moment that you are not observing a college science class, but instead are watching someone teach the art and science of sewing.  What would you think if the teacher used a traditional teaching cycle of (i) 50-minutes of lecture and demonstration, followed by (ii) several hours of homework where students try to replicate precisely what was shown in class followed by perhaps a few novel challenges, followed a few weeks later by (iii) a 50-minute exam measuring students’ knowledge of sewing vocabulary and perhaps a few time-limited performance-challenges where students could demonstrate their newly learned skills for a grade.  Then, repeat.  Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?

teaching sewingWhat if instead the sewing instructor started class by asking students to brainstorm all the things they might need to know in order to create a shirt?  Students might list that they need to know the targeted wearer’s size and where to get fabric, but a master teacher would also guide students to include notions they might not think of on their own, such as they type of fabrics available, button options, zipper options, and even the threads one might use.  The point here is a master teacher will give students feedback about their own initial ideas, and then guide students to new and deeper ways of thinking students might not previously considered. As a second step, imagine that the master sewing instructor shows students two different types of seams holding different pieces of fabric together, and gives students feedback as they try to compare and contrast differing fabric attachment strategies (you, dear reader, might take a moment and look at the end of the sleeves of the shirt you are wearing right now, and notice what the attachment pattern looks like to have a similar and perhaps surprising experience).  Then, as a third step, students are primed and ready to have a demonstration lecture about how to accomplish, practice, and perform some sewing techniques in order to get even more feedback on their deepening understanding.

What is starkly different in our teaching sewing example as compared to a repeated cycle of traditional information download lecture we so often see in college science lecture halls of lecture -> homework -> test -> repeat?  The difference here is a focus on finding numerous ways to give students constant feedback on their developing ideas instead of simply being a fountain of information to students who do not yet have questions.

Master science professors do not often conceptualize themselves as the fountain of all knowledge to which their students’ main task is to memorize everything their professor says and every procedural skill their professor their professor performs.  Instead, master science professors are constantly designing ever more innovative ways to interact with their students and provide them feedback.  In other words, master science professors are always searching for the magical teachable moment where students are primed and ready to receive a targeted mini-lesson at just the precise right moment.

insufficient formative feedbackThe go-to tool master science professors use from their teaching toolkit is NOT the well-articulated, cleverly-illustrated, information-download lecture.  Instead, the go-to-teaching toolkit are those from the broad and magically effective education category of “formative assessment.”  Some of these formative assessment techniques include guiding students to sort out relevant details from irrelevant details using mini-case studies; giving students feedback when comparing the nuances between the better of two possible answers when looking at test-like multiple-choice; and coaching their students to design potential exam questions and solutions that could actually show up on their future exams.  Overall, the goal of formative assessment is not to assign students grades, but instead give students meaningful and frequent feedback that guides students’ deepening understanding.

Effective feedback occurs during the learning, while there is still time for the teacher to act on it. – Jan Chappuis

My thesis here is that the professor who spends most of their limited time thinking about how to interact with students rather than rapidly deliver information during class is well on their way to becoming a master teacher.  I do not know whether such a change in teaching philosophy is actually a paradigm change, a change of who is most important in the classroom, or simply a change of heart; but, what I do know is such a change in philosophy is what makes some professors gravitate toward more effective active learning engagement strategies whereas other professors continue to remain entrenched as far less effective information-download lecturers.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

Suggested citation: Slater, T. F. (2016, November). Re-imagining your teaching by focusing on constant student feedback. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(4), http://www.scst.org/blog


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