This week:

  • I describe how hiring a former student to observe his course helped one professor adjust to teaching online.
  • I invite you to share your experience with student course evaluations during the pandemic.
  • I pass along some words of encouragement from a teaching expert.

A Different Kind of Student Feedback

As Joel Brewster Lewis worked last semester to adapt his linear-algebra course for math majors to an online format, he had some extra help. Mehr Rai, a senior who’d taken the course two years before, sat in on class sessions, met with Lewis to provide feedback, and held drop-in hours when students could get extra help.

Lewis, an assistant professor of mathematics at George Washington University, decided to hire Rai before he had any idea that the pandemic would push the course online. He had gotten the idea from Harry Brighouse, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has written about having a student worker critique his teaching. The move online meant Lewis’s discussions with Rai covered different ground than the professor had initially imagined — he thought they’d talk more about issues like how much class time he should spend on particular topics. But it ended up being an especially good semester in which to have a thoughtful observer.

To teach linear algebra remotely, Lewis created slides to supplement his usual technique of working through problems on the board, used a tablet to function as writing on the board normally would, and assigned group problem sets rather than individual ones. Still, he knew more adjustments would be needed along the way.

Rai, a math major who had taken a number of courses with Lewis, was able to give several kinds of support. Some of it concerned technical aspects of moving a course online, such as finding a replacement for the nonverbal feedback Lewis usually picks up on during class (they had students use emojis to convey their understanding) and ensuring students could read his handwriting, which was not as legible on a tablet as on a board. Rai also reminded Lewis, among other things, that he usually gives students slips of paper to share anonymous feedback at midterm. They were able to use a tool in Blackboard to collect similar feedback online. Fewer students weighed in, Lewis noticed, but those who did wrote longer responses than he typically gets on paper.

Part of what made the student-worker arrangement succeed, both Lewis and Rai emphasize, was their rapport.

“For this to have been useful,” Lewis says, “I had to trust that if I did something bad, that Mehr would be comfortable saying to me: Oh, this thing you did, it really didn’t work well, you should do something else next time.”

Rai gave Lewis that kind of constructive criticism. She also provided encouragement, letting Lewis know when a class session had gone particularly well, or things were working better than he thought. Those positive comments were especially meaningful during such a fraught and isolating semester.

It also helped, Lewis says, that Rai understood what makes linear algebra challenging for many students. The course is one of a couple that mark a turning point for math majors, Lewis says, moving them from computational to theoretical work. Rai did well in the course. But she started without any extra experience or preparation, and had to make that important transition during the semester. As a result, he says, she’s well equipped to think about supporting other students through it.

When professors turn to former students for help with a course, Lewis says, they often ask those who sailed through it. That might be fine for grading, he says, but drawing instead on an experience like Rai’s can bring broader benefits.

Rai agrees. “I remember being challenged by this class,” she says, “so it helped to have that kind of perspective and then also give some motivation to the students who were struggling.”

Helping with the course was fulfilling for Rai, too. She’s thinking of going on to graduate school in math, and appreciated the chance to deepen her understanding of important content — and get some practice in teaching it, too.

Lewis imagines he’ll ask a student to do something similar in a future semester. Next time, he thinks, he will be able to focus more on his original questions about which topics students could use more or less class time on.

Have you had a similar arrangement with a student teaching critic? What did you learn? What, in your experience, makes working with a student along those lines succeed? Share your thoughts with me, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and I may include them in a future newsletter.

Tell Us About Your Course Evaluations

Has your college changed the questions it asks students on course evaluations — or how it uses their answers — in light of the pandemic? Have you observed changes in the kinds of feedback your students provide? We’re curious about how pandemic teaching might affect the use of course evaluations, which don’t always measure what they set out to, are sometimes used in statistically dubious ways, and convey students’ biases against professors in marginalized groups. Please share your observations with us using this Google Form, and pass it along to any colleagues you think may be interested, too. Thanks!

The Classroom Can Be a Retreat

By now, students and professors might be used to pandemic teaching. But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten easier.

I was struck by the perspective James Lang offered in his most recent Chronicle column, part of a series on distraction and attention in the classroom, and thought it was worth underscoring at the beginning of a new semester and a new year.

Students, he writes, “are experiencing the literal meaning of the word distraction, with its Latin roots: dis (apart) trahere (to drag). We are all being dragged apart, pulled in many different directions.

“Amid so much anxiety and tension, faculty members have an incredible gift to offer students: the opportunity to come together and learn something meaningful.”

You can read the full piece, which offers some concrete ideas on how to communicate that opportunity to students, here.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beckie

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