Teaching Hub

What’s Best for Students? How Do You Know?

by Kaleb Heinrich, Biological Sciences

Remember the WWJD bracelets from the 1990s? They were popular among U.S. Christians, who used them to prompt ethical mindfulness. I’ve got the next best thing for college and university faculty, staff, and administration. WBFS – What’s best for students? This question should be at the root of every decision made in higher ed. I wish we all had WBFS bracelets this past year. It could serve to remind us why we are here and give us perspective as we navigate the challenges and issues we are up against.

How do we know what’s best for students?

We can dive into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) literature just as those who dawned their bracelets in the 90s consulted the Good Book. Much of it is now specific to our own disciplines and supported by evidence from a number of very thorough studies. Check out the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s overview of SoTL and a review of Weimer’s Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning.

We can ask our students. We are evaluated and get feedback from our students at the end of the semester, in which case it’s too late for the students whose feedback has been received. Even then, the Student Opinions of Instruction (SOIs) are not set up to tell us what is best for students. In fact, there are many issues regarding most teacher rating forms (see Beran et al. 2007 and Abrami 2001). But I digress.

I like to send my students a mid-term feedback form that allows for a more effective evaluation. This form was originally shared with me by a colleague, Dr. Lynn Eaton, who is a former University of Alabama Graduate and the Director of the Center for Effectiveness in Learning and Teaching at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. These are the questions I include:

  • Do you usually understand what is expected of you in preparing for and participating in this class? If not, please explain.
  • What aspects of this course and <Instructor name>’s teaching help you learn best?
  • What specific advice would you give to help <Instructor name> improve your learning in this course?
  • What steps could you take to improve your own learning in this course?
  • What other ideas would you suggest to improve this course (e.g., changes in course structure, assignments, etc.)?

My experience is overwhelmingly positive. I get feedback on myself, the course, and student attitudes. Any changes are usually small, taking minimal effort, but go a long way in motivating your students and showing them you want them to succeed. This is nothing new and has been supported by research over the last few decades (check out Marsh and Roche 1997). Even at the end of the semester in hopes to improve for future students, I like to ask beyond the SOIs:

  • Describe one or two things that <Instructor name> did that improved your learning in this class.
  • Was there anything <Instructor name> did that inhibited your learning in this class? Please describe.
  • In what three specific areas do you think you have improved most during this course?
  • What aspects of the course were not adequate? How can this be improved next time the course is taught?

Lastly, remember students are not always the best at knowing what is best for them. However, their feedback can go a long way as we reflect upon how we approach our teaching, design our courses, and ultimately guide us in knowing WBFS!