Sunday, November 16, 2014

Feedback strategies: quick, but good

The provision of good feedback is important. It’s one area of teaching where students are never satisfied (and they tell us so in their responses to student satisfaction surveys). While this seems counter-intuitive to those teachers who know that students often don’t collect assignments at the end of semester, it is so.

The thing is that students seem to be distinguishing between feedback that explains their mark, and feedback designed to assist them to complete future tasks more successfully. They aren’t so interested in the former, but they are very interested in the latter. So … that’s the trick … make sure you tell them that all the feedback you provide will assist them to do better in the future – either in the current course / subject, or in a later course or subject.

You might also try some of the following techniques to speed up the process and increase student engagement with the feedback you do provide for them.

Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT)

Give students time in class to reflect on their work, and to make improvements to it. You can do this in a variety of ways, one of which is to set up a peer review process that includes a session in class where they sit with their peers and go through draft assignments. You might have set up a previous activity where they have had time to share their drafts and work through the work of their colleagues, making comments and suggestions. The class time then gives them room to discuss those suggestions with each other.

Symbols, not comments

This technique works very well with errors and mistakes that are made by the majority of the class. Rather than write the same comment over and over again on assignment after assignment, create a key to common problems. Use the symbols when you are marking assignments, and provide students with a written explanation of the meaning of each symbol (returned with their assignments), and a follow-up session in class, where you go over each error or mistake and give them an opportunity to clarify their understanding. For example, the symbol # might be used to indicate “lack of evidence”. In your feedback session, you could then provide an overview of how to use evidence to support an argument. Remember, learning is a conversation. Students need to check with you that they have understood your feedback.

The Dot Round

As students are working in groups, do some quick quality feedback in class. That is, check their work. Where they have made mistakes or could improve things, mark their work with a dot. Don’t tell them what is wrong, just that something is not quite up to scratch. Their job then is to reflect on that particular section and work out how to improve it. You could also use this technique with draft submissions.

Assess in colour

In preparation for a DIRT session (see above) you or peer markers can draw green boxes around the best parts of someone’s draft assignment and red boxes around the bits that are not up to scratch. The reasons for these assessments can then be discussed in the DIRT session.

Self-assessment before teacher assessment

Provide students with a detailed marking rubric. Go through the rubric in class, ensuring – as far as possible – that students understand the criteria. Make it a requirement of submission that students provide a self-assessment of their assignment against the marking rubric. When you mark the work, use the same marking rubric, and concentrate on pointing out the differences between your assessment of their work, and their own assessment of their work.

One-to-one time in class

Where and when you can, provide students with opportunities to ask you questions about the written feedback you have provided. Learning is a conversation.


For more information on these and other techniques, visit

Monday, June 2, 2014

An alternative to classroom clickers

Today, I'm listening to A/Prof Manju Sharma of the University of Sydney's Physics Department, who is speaking at the latest ANU College of Science Teaching and Learning Colloquium. She is demonstrating a teaching strategy that draws on Eric Mazur's work, replacing classroom clickers with a free online application (

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her presentation is the way in which she draws on known or frequent errors or common misunderstandings she has observed In previous classes. She uses this experience and knowledge to create the challenge questions that she puts to students in class. These challenge questions ensure that students have acquired threshold concepts and that blocks to future learning in the course and the discipline have been removed early on in a novice's induction to the knowledge of the discipline.

Like Mazur before her, she has collected considerable data which demonstrates the effectiveness of the technique.

Interestingly, comments from students show that they are picking on on her language about learning in giving their feedback about the course: concepts, "hands-on, minds-on".

The tool,, is the kind of generic online tool that could be used in face-to-face classes to encourage deep learning, or in an online environment to replace some aspects of workshops and tutorials.

It's worth a look.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

The flipped classroom

There's a lovely description of the flipped classroom on the University of Queensland's website. It draws on material from a website maintained by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.

The authors of the site explain:
In essence, “flipping the classroom” means that students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then use class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, perhaps through problem-solving, discussion, or debates. In terms of Bloom’s revised taxonomy (2001), this means that students are doing the lower levels of cognitive work (gaining knowledge and comprehension) outside of class, and focusing on the higher forms of cognitive work (application, analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation) in class, where they have the support of their peers and instructor. This model contrasts from the traditional model in which “first exposure” occurs via lecture in class, with students assimilating knowledge through homework; thus the term “flipped classroom.”

Key characteristics of the flipped classroom

  1. First exposure to new material: Students are provided with an opportunity to gain their first exposure to the content of their course prior to class. Often, this is via a web-based resource, but it could be simply through readings set by the lecturer to be read in advance of the face-to-face learning event.
  2. Preparation for class: Students are often given an incentive to prepare for class. Vanderbilt recommends giving them marks for the pre-class activities. It would work equally well with many cohorts to ensure that those students who are properly prepared have a better in-class experience.
  3. Checking understanding: Lecturers do need to monitor how well students have completed this preparatory work. Formative assessment strategies work well in this context, as do short summative strategies, like quizzes. There are a range of strategies described throughout this blog that can be adapted for this purpose. These strategies for monitoring student understanding are probably best implemented online before class, or in the early stages of the face-to-face class. Without comprehension of the material, students won't be able to engage in the face-to-face activities well, and they won't gain the most from them.
  4. Applying, analysing, synthesizing, and evaluating: Finally, provide in-class activities that focus on higher level cognitive activities, that give students opportunity to deepen their understanding and increase their skills in drawing on their new knowledge and applying it to solve authentic disciplinary problems. These problems don't have to be new to the discpline, but they ought to be new to the students. They may provide a gateway to the next block of disciplinary knowledge to which students are introduced.
The Vanderbilt University site provides a range of suggested readings for those interested in exploring these ideas further.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Academic Controversy: a cooperative way to debate

Came across a paper recently (see below for the full reference) which outlines a very useful technique to manage classroom discussions.

The technique is called Academic Controversy by the author, George Jacobs.

He writes:
"... one criticism of debate is that it creates a situation of negative interdependence among students, i.e. those on each side of the debate attempt to defeat those on the other side. Thus, what hurts one group helps the other."
The technique and the variations outlined in his paper are designed to promote "positive interdependence" and a deeper understanding of the topics in question.

The Technique

  1. Divide students into groups of four, divided into pairs. Assign each pair a position on a controversial topic. Give students limited time to prepare their argument.
  2. Each pair presents their assigned view, while the other pair listens and takes notes.
  3. Each side takes turns to rebut the arguements presented by the other side, and to defend their own position.
  4. Students exchange positions, and repeat the first three steps, taking the opposing view. During this stage, each pair will build on the work of the first pair; they won't merely be repeating the arguements already presented.
  5. As a group of four, participants "attempt to forge a common position, which could be one of the two positions assigned earlier" or an entirely different position.
  6. The group of four presents this final common position to the class.


  • Use turn-taking procedures to ensure that each pair or group is given equitable amounts of time.
  • Give students time to prepare slides or visual representations of their arguments, e.g. mind maps.
  • Provide students will scaffolding materials to assist them to prepare their arguments.
  • Involve students in the selection of topics.
  • Encourage students to use a variety of modes to present their arguments, e.g. role play, poetry, song, etc.


Jacobs, G. (2010). Academic Controversy: a cooperative way to debate. Intercultural Education, 21(3), 291-296.

Questions a critical thinker asks

Here's another little gem from James Meek's collection. Click on the image to get a larger version of it.


The art of asking questions

James Meek, currently at Macquarie University, has passed on one of his useful resources - a piece by Maryellen Weimer, PhD.

She writes:

"At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions:  Will material from the book be on the exam? How long should the paper be? Can we use Google to find references? Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes. Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students. 

So, how do we get them to ask better questions? What if we start by asking them the kinds of questions we hope they will ask us? Here are some suggestions that might help us model what good questions are and demonstrate how instrumental they can be in promoting thinking, understanding, and learning. 

Prepare questions 

Too often we ask questions as they come to us. Allen and Tanner write in an excellent article on questioning, “Although many teachers carefully plan test questions used as final assessments, ... much less time is invested in oral questions that are interwoven in our teaching.” (p. 63) How many questions of the kind that generate discussion and lead to other questions come to us as we are teaching? Would more of those thought-provoking questions come to us if we thought about questions as we prepare and contemplate the content for class? 

Play with the questions 

Questions promote thinking before they are answered. It is in the interstices between the question and the answer that minds turn. In that time before answers, questions can be emphasized by having them on a PowerPoint or on the board and by encouraging students to write the question in their notes. Maybe it’s a question that opens class and doesn’t get answered until the end of class. Maybe it’s a question that gets asked repeatedly across several class sessions with any number of possible answers entertained before a good or right answer is designated.  

Preserve good questions 

If a question does generate interest, thoughtful responses, and good discussion, that’s a question to keep in some more permanent way than simply trying to remember it. Good questions can be preserved along with the course materials for that day. Finding them there next semester enables us a revisit and possibly improve them. Do we need to be reminded that probing questions about the content, not only encourage students to think, they are good grist for the mill of our own thinking? 

Ask questions that you don’t know the answer to 

Students tend to think that teachers have all the answers. Could that be because we answer all their questions? Marshall makes a point worth remembering. Typically we ask students questions that we already know the answer to and if any of you are like me, while the student is answering, I’m quietly thinking how much better my answer is and how I will quickly deal with the students answer so I can then give my answer. Asking a question you don’t know the answer to lets students know that you still have things to learn. Asking students those questions and then thoughtfully attending to their answers also indicates that you just might be able to learn something from a student. Could this be a way to motivate them to ask better questions? 

Ask questions you can’t answer 

These questions are different from those you don’t know the answer to. It’s possible to find answers to those questions. These are the questions currently being confronted within the field or area of study that haven’t yet been answered. As of this moment, the answers are unknown. A question that can’t be answered is inherently more interesting than one that can be answered. Are there theories or research findings that suggest answers? Are some of those more likely than others? Could the answer be something totally unexpected? What if a student thinks she might have an idea about a possible answer? 

Don’t ask open-ended questions when you know the answer you’re looking for 

Sometimes students offer answers but they aren’t the ones the teacher wanted to hear. If you aren’t getting the answer you want, don’t play the “try to guess the answer I have in mind” game. It reinforces the idea that the question has one answer that the teacher thinks is the right or best answer. If the teacher has the answer, students are quick to conclude it’s the definitive right answer, and that makes it an answer that they won’t spend any time thinking about.  

We ask questions to get students interested, to help them understand, and to see if they do. We’d like for our questions to promote lively discussions during which thoughtful perspectives are exchanged, different views presented and new ideas are born. To accomplish that goal we need to plan and use question in more purposeful ways. If questions start playing a more prominent role in our teaching, the reward may be students asking questions we’d find interesting to answer and they’d find more interesting to discuss.

Shouldn’t an article on questioning end with one? It should, and Allen and Tanner have a great one: “What would you predict would happen in your classroom if you changed the kinds of questions that you ask? (p. 63)


Allen, D. and Tanner, K. (2002). Approaches to cell biology teaching: Questions about questions. Cell Biology Education, 1, 63-67. 

Marshall, G. (2006). From Shakespeare on the page to Shakespeare on the stage: What I learned about teaching in acting class. Pedagogy, 6 (2), 309-325.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.3 (2013): 5. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved."