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Feedback Questions as Course Scaffold

Pieces of glass insulation wool on scaffold against house

The semester is winding down.  Soon we’ll face the sometimes anticipated but often dreaded task of reviewing students’ course feedback. While many schools refer to them as student evaluations of teaching (SET) or SRTEs (student ratings of teaching effectiveness), they aren’t really meant to be evaluations and shouldn’t be viewed as ratings. The instruments are only one source of feedback. The unfortunate truth is they’re often assigned undeserved weight and meaning.

I’ve spent a few months reading the course feedback literature.  Much of it is conflicting and I’m not confident enough in my understanding to write about best practices yet. So for now, let’s put aside the hot button issues related to ratings differences and biases across major, gender, student-level, discipline and other concerns.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the questions. Do you have the authority to set or change some or all of the questions on your feedback instrument? If so, when was the last time you did? Do you ask the same questions in different courses? Why or why not?  I recently examined my forms, reviewed our university’s question pool, and made significant changes. It was interesting and eye opening. I highly recommend going through this exercise during a break, not mid-semester (speaking from experience).

Like many schools, our form specifies some questions.  Beyond those mandated by the university, college, and program I have a lot of choices.  Here are a few that capture my instructional goals. Rate the instructor’s skill/effectiveness in

  • Relating course material to real life situations
  • Making class sessions intellectually stimulating
  • Helping students answer their own questions
  • Encouraging students to apply concepts to demonstrate understanding
  • Emphasizing learning rather than tests and grades
  • Guiding students to be more self-directed in their learning

These items reflect instruction involving more than content coverage. I want to develop students as learners while they master accounting or economics.

The questions asked in prior semesters primarily focused on the administrative aspects of instruction such as my availability during office hours, preparation for class, skill in stressing important material, and presentation clarity. These are important, but they present a very narrow interpretation of teaching.  So much more should be happening in vibrant, engaging learning spaces; course feedback should reflect that.

Unfortunately, I cannot predict how students will react. I may, as a dear friend suggested, need to sip a good glass of wine when reviewing them. Students, unfamiliar with these questions, may not know how to respond. They may have never thought about the educational process in these terms.  This made me realize how the questions can and should be used for more than obtaining feedback at the end of the semester.

Teachers can use them as a framework for scaffolding instruction. Here’s an example to illustrate. On the wall opposite my desk at home is a sheet of paper titled The Far Goal. It lists four questions that drove my scholarly activity over the past several years.  This was a period where I shifted away from economics scholarship toward faculty development, mentoring and consulting.

  • What publishing, writing, and thinking positions me for the far goal?
  • What publishing projects will best support writing a book?
  • What publishing projects will open more consulting opportunities?
  • What publishing projects will continue the quest to be the best teacher I can become?

Each time I sat at my desk, the Far Goals were there, providing a visible reminder of what I want to achieve. The Far Goals provide a framework from which consulting and research opportunities and projects were evaluated.

Similarly, course feedback questions can scaffold instructional decisions in many ways: choosing how and when to cede control; selecting  formative and summative assessments; balancing student- v. teacher-selected topics; and instructional practice decisions like developing a pool of response strategies aimed at helping students answer questions for themselves.

Teachers can also share their questions with students at the start of the course.  They can be part of the syllabus and class discussion.  Building on this process may lead to asking students to select items from a pool of choices, thereby sharing ownership, responsibility and control of learning even more.  If you haven’t thought about course evaluation questions or the syllabus in this way before, please considering reading Learner Centered Syllabi for details about my syllabi, and beliefs about sharing control with students.  Reservations & Setting the Table for Learning considers how tone and underlying messages can detract from learning even before the course starts.

I also plan to reframe the questions as Instructional Goals to be prominently posted in my school office. The Instructional Goals will orient my choices and remind me of my teaching/learning priorities before I head to the classroom each day.

Does your course evaluation incorporate particularly good questions? Are you using them in unexpected ways? Please share!

We’ll examine the results and their implications in January.   Until then, thank you for sharing your ideas and feedback in the comments and through email this year. I appreciate learning from and with you.  Happy Holidays!


Learner-Centered Syllabi


At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.

For some faculty, the syllabus is a contract between them and their students, complete with a dotted line where students sign their name indicating they consent to the terms of the agreement. Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, is a reformed syllabus-as-a-contract believer.

“I will confess, as a former business professional, I did view the syllabus as a contract,” said Paff. “But when you really think about a contract, and you have someone sign a contract, that, by nature, sets up an adversarial relationship. The implied message is, ‘I don’t expect that you’re going to live up to this unless I have it in writing.’ That used to be the tone in my classroom—it’s not the tone anymore. That approach doesn’t foster a good learning environment.”

What is a learner-centered syllabus?
Today, Paff takes a more learner-centered approach to her syllabi. A learner-centered syllabus can take many forms, but it often includes one or more of these features:

A rationale for course objectives and assignments. A syllabus can be used to set the stage and the context for the course and where it sits within the discipline. Paff encourages faculty to be intentional about what is and isn’t included in the course, and then share that with students. Why are these assignments a part of the course? Why are we studying this particular topic?

Shared decision making. In some cases, a learner-centered syllabus means allowing students to have some say in course policies and procedures. Depending on the course and the students, Paff allows some flexibility in decision making for assignment weights and options. While first-year students typically won’t have the maturity to make these types of decisions, juniors and seniors can often thrive when given some choice in how they will demonstrate their learning.

Warnings of potential pitfalls. There are often certain components of a course that students find more difficult than others. Giving students a heads-up of what to look out for or behaviors that could impede success (e.g., “You really want to look out for X, and here’s a strategy so that it doesn’t happen.”) can go a long way. “That advice is going to be well received by students,” said Paff. “It sets the stage that the teacher really cares about them, not just what’s going to be covered and what’s expected of them, but that you’re in this together.”

An opportunity for students to set teacher expectations. On the first day of class, as Paff goes over the syllabus and outlines her expectations for students, she asks what they expect of her. The students break into groups to discuss past learning experiences and offer up one or two policies that they think will help them learn, which Paff types into a document during the exercise. Throughout the semester, the class revisits the students’ recommendations. “I might say, ‘See, you asked me to provide review sessions, so I’m extending my office hours before the next exam,’” Paff explained. “It’s another opportunity to talk about what we are learning, where we are in the course, what our expectations were for the class, and how are we progressing.”

Recommendations for staying on track. Every syllabus includes a course calendar, but a learner-centered syllabus could also provide guidance on how to tackle specific projects—from how much time something will take to strategies for gathering the necessary resources, Paff said. In addition, students might also need help in evaluating and monitoring their progress throughout the course.

“When it comes to a learner-centered syllabus vs. a traditional syllabus, it’s not really a difference so much in content as it is in tone,” said Paff. “There’s a shift in emphasis from ‘What are we going to cover?’ to ‘How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?’ So it’s going to contain roughly the same information, but the language used to convey the policies, procedures, and content is different in order to foster  a more engaging and shared learning environment.”

How long should a syllabus be?
One of the big questions faculty have regarding their syllabi centers on length. While there is no hard-and-fast rule about the optimal length of a syllabus, there is often a tendency for policy creep to push the page count higher than necessary as faculty try to anticipate every possible scenario that could occur throughout the semester.

“My syllabi started off at two to three pages, and then as I tried to close every loophole that would develop, it grew, and grew, and grew to the point where I had an entire page on nothing but classroom policies and procedures for missed exams and absences, and how I wanted homework submitted, and it grew to this five-page detailed tome,” said Paff. “Now there’s nothing wrong with a four or five page syllabus, if it serves your purpose and it’s the kind of document that you revisit with students, and it’s one that sets a framework for learning.”

Rather than worry about syllabus length, Paff encourages faculty to think about the tone of the syllabus and the order of the content they’re presenting.

For example, consider the following course description she used in a syllabus years ago:

Econ102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomic deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior is influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.

Now compare that to the description she uses now:

Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from what time to get up … whether or not to go to class … how long to study, or work, or how much to eat, or where to go on Thursday nights … ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles. Microeconomics helps us to understand how people and firms make choices, how markets are organized, why and how markets behave differently, and the effects government interventions have in market outcomes. I LOVE this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.

“A lot of times I feel that students think that a course happens at them and they’re not truly engaged and a part of the learning experience,” Paff said. “If the syllabus is structured in a way and the content is delivered in a way that they’re an active part of what happens in the class, and they have some control over how they learn and what they learn, then the random arbitrariness of learning is minimized.”

With a new school year about to begin, take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.

Reprint of Mary Bart article summarizing my Faculty Focus podcast, July 29, 2015. Photo credit: Alan Levine.



I hardly recognize myself. That’s expected when you’ve reached your 50s. Inside I feel like my 20-something self, but when I glance in the mirror I see someone much older. Sigh. At least the laugh lines and crows feet have come with some wisdom and perspective.

I recently told a colleague how I was planning to finish the semester in microeconomics. Her response, “soon you will be as I was, hardly recognizing the teacher I’d become.” That got me thinking about the ways I’ve changed as a teacher. That evolution is more dramatic than the ways my reflection has altered with time.

Insecure …to… Confident

Let’s be honest. New teachers are nervous. We might be content experts, but unless you are in education, the amount of pedagogical training provided in grad school typically ranges from little to none. We end up teaching as we were taught. I didn’t read much about pedagogy until I was tenured. I had the good fortune of working with an excellent mentor. I listened to experienced teachers. But generally, I was very nervous, insecure, and ignorant about teaching and learning in my early career.

I’m more confident now, but that’s only partly because of time and experience. A big part of that confidence stems from being more informed about my teaching. I read books about learning, cognition, teaching, technology and related issues regularly. I read several pedagogical journals. I have been conducting pedagogical scholarship for several years. I reflect on my teaching practice (this blog is invaluable to me in that regard). I present at teaching and learning conferences and lead faculty development workshops. Time, by itself, doesn’t make us better teachers. Learning, testing, experimentation and reflection are responsible for growing as a teacher and thereby increasing my confidence.

Pessimistic …to… Optimistic

Perhaps it’s my background as an auditor. Maybe it’s due to my upbringing or genes. Whatever the cause, my early teaching years reflected this view: If you don’t grade it, students won’t do it. It’s terrible to admit, but that suggests the teacher thinks many students are lazy and unmotivated. That attitude can manifest in a number of teacher behaviors that hurt student learning and/or prove self-fulfilling. When we expect the worst of students, they often deliver.

Over time, I looked at my courses from the student perspective. I discovered I wouldn’t want to be one of my students! I changed the tone of my syllabus. “Students will…” statements were replaced with “We will…” Instead of assuming the worst in students and planning for that in the syllabus, I tested the alternative position. My policies now assume the best. The result is that the worst-case scenarios (missed exams, cheating, etc) are outliers, not the norm. The more positive and optimistic I’ve become about my students and their learning, the more fun and productive my classes have become for me and my students.

Controlling …to… Facilitating

Never let them see you sweat. That’s an apt mantra for the insecure teacher. If you’re unsure of yourself, you certainly don’t want students to suspect. Often, the best defense is a good offense. For many teachers that means exerting complete control. It starts with a syllabus that spells out what will happen every minute of every class. Class sessions become scripted Powerpoint lectures. Sometimes students are given a script with blanks to fill in during lecture. Complete control means students have no say in policy, content, or assessment. Although I have never used slides to lecture or scripts for note taking, my early teaching behaviors and demeanor made it very clear, the class was MY show.

How and why did that change? I believe it started when I incorporated active learning strategies in the classroom. It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.

That brings me to the present. I have yielded even more control of my microeconomics course. What students will investigate during the last two weeks of the course and the format of their final assessment is a choice (within ranges). I’ll be teaching some content during a portion of each class. The remainder of each period will be dedicated to group and individual work on topics they identified in the Big Questions assignment (See ).

I never had a professor/teacher let the students make the syllabus/lessons and I think this is why I am doing so well in the class. It’s a great way of teaching.

When I started teaching, sharing control like this was beyond my imagination. I wish I knew then what I know now. I scarcely recognize myself.