One Head TF Discusses In-Service Feedback for TFs

Carole Hooven, now Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies for Human Evolutionary Biology, wrote this advice for Head TFs regarding having their TFs and TAs get feedback on their teaching during the semester:

Encourage TFs to get early feedback on their section teaching! They can find out what they are doing well and they can see what needs to be fixed.

Early feedback from students: Getting feedback from students is scary--you're asking them to tell you, honestly, what they like and don't like about your sections and teaching. But, at least you will know what they are thinking! If you don't ask, you may never know, and will continue doing things that students wish you would change. And usually, the students have good ideas about how you could improve. The things they suggest may not be difficult to change, make for a better teaching/learning experience, and your efforts are very much appreciated by the students. Arrange ahead of time for someone at the Bok Center to summarize the feedback for you if you would rather not read the comments yourself. Ask a student to deliver the forms to the Bok center in a sealed envelope labeled with your name and section time. If you are new, or anxious about your teaching, this is probably the best way to go. Also, the students might feel able to be more open and honest if they know you aren't going to read the forms yourself.

As a TF, I responded to my students' feedback in a memo (included below if you want to check out an example). I summarized the responses (but someone from the Bok center can do it), and let students know how I would address their comments. If I wasn't going to change something they suggested, I explained why. They seemed to really appreciate that I took their comments seriously, and that I was making an effort to improve.

As Head TF, requiring that all your TFs get early feedback is a great way to let some tfs know they are going a good job and to get an early start on helping out TFs who may be struggling. The TFs may not realize that their students are less than happy with sections, and this is a problem that will fester if left unanswered. Requiring early feedback from all TFs means you don't have to single out any one TF to get help from the Bok center--everyone has to do it.

Getting videotaped: An *excellent* opportunity in addition to the early feedback, and you can also require or at least strongly urge all TFs to do it (and professors too!). In my first year of teaching I watched my tape with Ellen Sarkisian, who gave me gently constructive criticism, and the lessons I've learned have stuck. Yes, I was a slightly disconcerted about some of the odd bodily tics that seemed to emerge when I was in front of the class, but I would never have known about how I swayed back and forth while I was talking if I hadn't seen it on tape. I also wouldn't have noted things that Ellen observed-such as how the students leaned into the table when they got engaged in discussion, and I was able to see what I'd done to stimulate that. I admit, it's not easy to see yourself teaching on tape--but it's not easy because you'll see things you might not be comfortable with. This is what the students see, and now you can work on changing. It was also a gratifying experience, because I saw what I was doing that worked.

So, the bottom line is, it's better to have people learn early about what's working and what can be improved, even though it can be uncomfortable. Ultimately everyone improves as a teacher from getting early feedback.

(example) Student Midterm Feedback Summary -- Science B-62, Spring 2006. TF: Carole Hooven

1. What do you like best about section?
Good discussions, comfortable, diagrams, clear about going over hard stuff from lecture, enthusiasm, CANDY and games.

2. What would you like to change about the section?
Cover more material from lecture, more terms from handout, more discussion

3. What are the section leader's strengths?
Clear, organized, will meet, discussions move along, knows material, prepared, friendly, includes everyone (thanks!)

4. What suggestions do you have to improve the section leader's teaching?
Cover more material, don't run out of time, more real-life examples (I totally agree), better markers (YES!), more games/candy, clearer explanations

5. Is the section leader effective overall? (5=strongly agree): 1 2 3 4 5
13 gave 5s, 1 gave 4.5, and 1 gave 4. Average: 4.89

Carole's Response:

Thanks so much for your feedback, it helps me know what's going well and what I can do better. The comments were incredibly uniform -- almost everyone said they liked the discussions, my enthusiasm, clarity and organization, but almost everyone wished we could cover more in class.

Here's my response.

I would like to cover more too, and one thing that will help is starting on time. In that case, as I understand that some people just can't get to section on time, some people may have to miss the logistical stuff at the beginning of class. (Thanks to the person who pointed out that I'm not as demanding about being on-time as I was at the start, I learned that you're trying!). I can try to reduce the time spent on logistics at the beginning. It's hard to manage having good discussions AND covering lots of different info from lectures, so I've been trying to focus in on areas that I thought might be challenging for most people. One thing I will try is to have you guys email me, say over the weekend or after you get your term list, about what you'd like to cover, and I can focus on what you seem to want most (Steve also has ideas about what he wants covered, so I have to incorporate that too). We can try to cover more terms through games (I thought that was fun and effective when we did it for vision), and then save some time for discussion. I think that having fun actually helps people learn, so, I'm all for candy and games. I'm happy to hear game suggestions. Debates can be good too...

One person was concerned that I may be too blunt sometimes, and that it might make it harder for some people to participate in discussions. I have heard this from another student in another section. It's my personality, for better or worse, and it's good to be reminded that it might make some people uncomfortable. So, thanks for bringing it up, I'll try to improve that. Someone else said something about "awkward silences" when I ask a question, and they preferred that I just "put someone on the spot." This is a conscious decision on my part -- I know the silences are not comfortable for everyone, but I like to let your minds percolate a bit. Sometimes if I just wait, someone raises their hand and gets things moving. I will, however, as I'm sure you've noticed, not hesitate to put someone on the spot too!

Please do feel free to contact me any time for a meeting, which can be about course stuff (like your paper topic, questions from lecture), or, I'm happy to talk about my research in the lab, stuff on evolution of sex differences, testosterone, spatial ability, or studying wild chimps, if you're interested.

-- Carole