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Seven ways to check in with students
How to get feedback on your grading system
We’re a third of our way through fall semester at Grand Valley State University. That’s a perfect time to check in with students, especially to learn how your alternative grading system is working for them. At this point, your students have likely experienced most of the key aspects of your assessments and grading, and might have questions, confusion, or suggestions about them.
There are literally dozens of ways to check in with students. In this post, I’ll describe seven approaches I’ve used that can help you learn what students think about your alternative grading system, and how you might want to adjust it. These work in a variety of different contexts, and they range from short to long and informal to formal. Feel free to use whichever one works for you – or even use more than one, at different times, to get different types of information.
What it is: Have students fill out a short, anonymous survey with three questions like these:
What is something that we are doing in this class that we should stop doing in order to help your learning?
What is something that we are not currently doing in this class that we should start doing in order to help your learning?
What is something that we are currently doing in this class that we should continue doing in order to help your learning?
In each case, also ask for a brief reason for the response.
You can focus these questions on your grading system, or leave them phrased more generally about the class. It can be interesting to see if students mention grades at all – sometimes prompting people to respond to a specific topic causes them to think up issues that aren’t really important to them, just because you asked.
Short anonymous surveys like this work best in classes that are small enough for you to read all of the feedback. Look for something shorter and more direct in larger classes.
What works/what should change
What it is: Have students fill out a short, anonymous survey with two questions:
What is something about this class or the way it is conducted has worked well for you? Why do you like it?
What is one thing we should change about this class that would improve your learning? How would you suggest changing it, and why?
How to use it: This is very similar to stop/start/continue, but a bit shorter and more focused. This is my go-to quick survey structure, and I often use it two or three times per semester. I’ve found that students are willing to engage and give helpful feedback. Again, use this if you’ll be able to read and process all of the responses.
Likert scale survey
What it is: Create a short survey (e.g. in Google Forms, Qualtrics – whatever you have easy access to) and ask students a few brief questions with Likert scale response options.
For example, I’ve sometimes asked questions like these:
How helpful have you found the feedback on assignments? With response options: “I haven’t looked at it”, “Unhelpful”, “Shrug”, “Helpful”, and “Very helpful”.
Do you keep your progress record up to date? With options: “What’s a progress record?”, “Sometimes”, “Usually”, and “Always”.
How often have you revised a quiz question? With options “I have never earned ‘Revisable’ on a quiz question”, “Never”, “Sometimes”, or “Always”.
(Of course, you could use a standard scale like “Very dissatisfied” through “Very satisfied”, but I like these scales for a bit more variety.)
Leave one free-response field where students can respond to any of these questions or give you other feedback.
How to use it: Surveys with closed-ended questions and pre-made response scales can give quick, easy-to-process data. Most survey tools let you look at medians and response distributions. These are great for larger classes where free-response questions might be too much to read. Keep the questions limited and focused, especially on things that you’re concerned about.
Responses can also give you useful ideas for what to do next. For example, if a lot of students choose “What’s a progress record?”, now you know that this is something to recap during your next class. Or perhaps you’ll learn that you need to remind students about the process for revising quiz questions.
What it is: Present students with examples that illustrate various final grade scenarios, and ask them what grade each imaginary student has earned. Include examples that might be surprising, counterintuitive, or which illustrate unexpected features of your final grade criteria. Include a free-response question where students can ask questions about how grades work.
How to use it: The goal is to help students engage with your final grade criteria, call attention to unexpected scenarios, and consider how those criteria apply to their situation.
For example, final grade might depend on two categories, as represented in this table:
You could ask what grade would be earned by Chris, who has 14 learning targets and 5 advanced problem sets at “successful” (it’s an A!). But also ask about Jamie, who has 16 learning targets at “successful”, but only 1 problem set. If you require students to fully complete all requirements for a grade, then Jamie is likely at a C, a possibly unexpected scenario that you’ll want students to be aware of now, while they still have time to adjust. Or if you have some policies for adjusting grades based on how close students are to the next higher or lower grade, this could highlight those policies.
You could put these scenarios in a short survey, but an even better option is to show them in class, one at a time, and have students talk in pairs about what grade each sample student would earn. This can provoke productive discussions and help you clear up misunderstandings. Robert and I often do activities like this on one of the first days of class, but they also work well as a mid-semester reminder.
Ask students for questions, and have answers ready for common questions. This can be a chance to remind students about your philosophy on grading as well. For example, I often say something like this: “Learning targets are all about your fundamental understanding, and problem sets show me that you can work with those ideas in higher-level ways. Both of those are important, so if you’re missing one or the other, you’re missing a critical part of what matters in this class!” And likewise, “I want you to succeed – and reassessments are part of how I help you do that. Take advantage of them! Here’s how…”
Fill out a progress tracker
What it is: Progress trackers (aka grade trackers, grade records, learning trackers…) are pieces of paper – or their electronic equivalent – that help students track their progress towards a desired grade. You can read more about them in my post on how to make and use grade trackers.
As a midterm check-in, have students fill out or update a progress tracker, and show it to you during class, in an office hour, or by email. You could even have them fill out the information in a short electronic survey. Then use this as a springboard to discuss next steps, resources to use, and areas for improvement.
How to use it: Much like the grade scenarios above, the goal is to encourage students to engage with your grade criteria and see how those criteria apply to them. It’s also likely that this check-in will inspire a few students who weren’t keeping a close eye on their progress to start filling in their tracker.
You can compare each student’s tracker with your own gradebook to see if they’re keeping an accurate record. But the biggest benefit to this kind of check-in is to use the progress tracker as a starting point to make personalized recommendations. For example, “it looks like you’re doing great on learning targets, but you haven’t earned ‘Successful’ on any advanced problem sets yet. Let’s talk about those…”. You could also ask students to outline concrete steps they need to take (“I will revise an advanced problem set within the next week…”).
In many ways, a progress tracker check-in is a more structured version of the “grade conversations” that often happen in ungraded classes, which we’ll look at next.
What it is: Meet individually with students to discuss their progress, set specific goals or next steps, and generally come to an agreement on their current status. Check-in meetings are a common feature of “ungraded” (specifically gradeless, or collaboratively graded) classes.
How to use it: Above all else, create structure for the meeting, for example by providing some prompts that you’d like to discuss. You can even ask students to prepare responses ahead of time. Gradeless classes typically have some sort of narrative or descriptive criteria for final grades, and you can ask students to fill out a structured set of reflective questions that are phrased in terms of those criteria (here’s one example from my Euclidean Geometry class). Think carefully about what prompts are worth discussing, and be clear that preparation is necessary – this shouldn’t be a meeting where anyone arrives unprepared.
Individual check-in meetings can be valuable specifically because they are so personalized. I’ve found them to be most successful when I help students set clear, actionable goals or next steps. Don’t be afraid to be specific and direct, especially when students need to make big changes.
Individual check-in meetings work best in very small classes. In mid-sized classes (20-30 students), I’ve used a “hybrid” approach: All students fill out a structured reflection, as described above, and submit it on our LMS. Then students or I can request a meeting if we think it’s needed, which helps reduce the total number of meetings. If neither a student nor I requests a meeting, then I give written feedback on their reflections.
Mid-semester class interviews
What it is: Many institutions have a Teaching and Learning center (aka Center for Excellence in Teaching, etc.). These centers often offer a program in which a trained facilitator comes to interview your class, without you in the room. The facilitator meets with you afterward, summarizes the class’s feedback, and helps you decide on adjustments or responses. Robert and I have both used these in various classes; you can read about Robert’s experience in his post from a few years ago.
How to use it: Your Teaching and Learning center will likely have instructions on their website. If not, contact the center and ask if an interview is possible – in my experience, directors love the chance to work closely with both students and faculty.
Class interviews don’t have to take up an entire class – ours usually take just 15 to 20 minutes – and can be tuned towards particular topics that you want to hear about. You can ask the facilitator to get feedback on your grading system, or anything else of concern.
These mid-semester class interviews can be quite valuable, both because students may be more willing to give honest feedback to the facilitator, and also because the process can help students and you understand the context for concerns (does everybody have this concern, or just me?).
Whatever you do, here are a few bits of advice to help make the check-ins useful.
First, keep your check-in short and focused. Ask a few specific questions that are likely to elicit useful information. Especially for surveys and reflections, don’t toss in questions about every possible class topic or issue.1 The same is true for individual student meetings: They’re much more productive when they are focused, especially by providing a few pre-meeting prompts. Leave a little time to discuss any other questions that come up.
Second, be sure to respond. Give helpful feedback on individual student check-ins. For whole-class surveys, spend 5 minutes in class summarizing student responses and going over key themes. When you do, don’t skip positives! It can be especially helpful to remind students that lots of their peers like how grades work (if that’s what the feedback tells you), which can help a few unhappy students know that others disagree. Be selective and don’t over-emphasize outliers, either positive or negative.
Finally, believe what you hear. If a clear theme of confusion or anxiety emerges from a survey or student meetings, there’s something there. Even the clearest and best-designed grading system might end up confusing students, and if they tell you so, believe them. Use your best judgment as an instructor to decide what to do, tell students about it, and then do it.
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Have you ever taken one of those surveys where you fill out a giant page of questions, only to find another page of more questions right after it? That’s often when I give up. Don’t make your students do the same thing!