Gathering Midterm Student Feedback
Gathering midterm student feedback about a course can help an instructor gain a clearer sense of student perceptions, and thus improve engagement and learning in the final weeks of a semester. Acting on midterm feedback can also improve student satisfaction in a course (Snooks, Neeley and Revere, 2007) and increase participation in end-of-term teaching surveys (Young, et al., 2019). Overall and Marsh (1979, p. 863) argue that a midterm survey helps create “a climate more conducive to cognitive growth.”
There is little research on how best to approach midterm feedback, but the scholarship that does exist suggests brief questions that allow students to point out strengths and weaknesses of a class. This can be done in a number of ways, including in-class written feedback, an online survey, a directed discussion with students, and reflection assignments that students complete as part of their coursework. Brevity is important because instructors must receive and review the feedback relatively quickly if they hope to make changes in final weeks of a course (Bullock, 23).
What midterm feedback is not
Anyone gathering midterm course feedback should keep in mind that such feedback is formative, not summative. That is, it should not be used to rate or rank instructors. Student feedback gathered at midterm (or at other times during the semester) allows an instructor to gauge student perceptions while a course is in progress and to revise problematic areas before the end of a semester. Using it to evaluate overall instructor performance would be premature and unfair. Morley (2014) found that the reliability of students’ judgments about the quality of instruction were particularly weak. Students were better able to identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching, Morley said, arguing that student survey results are best used for formative evaluations.
Relatedly, though, an instructor’s willingness to gather midterm feedback suggests a dedication to effective teaching and a desire to improve – assuming the instructor uses the feedback to make changes to a course or engage in discussions with students. This approach can be part of an effective long-term strategy for continual improvement of teaching and student engagement. One reason students fail to complete end-of-semester surveys is that they don’t see a personal benefit, and many doubt that their responses have any effect on a course. So seeing an instructor act on feedback early in a course can motivate students later when they are asked to complete a final course survey.
What to ask students
Brevity will help ensure that more students participate in midterm feedback. It will also help an instructor focus on only a few areas that can be reasonably addressed. The questions to students should focus on approaches that have helped students learn and those that could be improved. For instance:
- What about the course has been most effective in helping you learn?
- What could be improved?
- What other changes do you suggest?
There are certainly other questions that might be asked, but ones like the three listed above can provide actionable feedback and give the instructor a sense of whether a class is going well.
How to gather feedback
An instructor might choose one of several approaches to gather feedback depending on the size and format of a class. No matter the approach, gaining midterm feedback is best done either in class or as part of a reflection assignment. That will ensure broader participation.
- In-class written feedback. This is the easiest and quickest way to gather feedback from students. In smaller classes, an instructor could put questions on the board or onscreen and ask students to write their responses on a sheet of paper or notecard. They could do the same with an electronic document they submit to the instructor.
- Directed discussion. This could be done by the instructor, a colleague, a GTA or someone outside the department. Some instructors worry that students won’t provide honest feedback unless they have anonymity. That may be true in some cases, but if an instructor has a good relationship with a class and is open about the need for honest feedback (without penalty to students), most students will respond.
- Instructor-led discussion. This approach has several benefits: the instructor gets feedback immediately; students can speak to specific aspects of a class that both they and the instructor have been involved in; the instructor can ask follow-up questions; and the instructor can provide immediate feedback to students about their suggestions. This approach can also help build trust, benefiting the students and the instructor later in the semester.
- Discussion led by someone outside the class. Some instructors feel more comfortable with this approach, especially if there is tension in a class or if instructors feel that students won’t provide forthright feedback to them directly. To implement it, an instructor blocks off time in class for a visitor, who talks with students and asks general questions about the class. The visitor then either compiles a report for the instructor or talks with the instructor about what students said. Snooks et al. (2004) argue that a peer-led discussion with students broadens instructors’ perspectives of a curriculum, gives students opportunities to hear viewpoints of peers about a course, helps students articulate their thoughts about learning, and helps break down barriers that often exist between courses taught in isolation. This approach also allows for more substantial responses than students might provide in written feedback.
- Digital survey. Again, brevity is important. The instructor should encourage students to be honest and constructive, explaining what the survey is for and how the information will be used. The survey might be administered through Canvas, Qualtrics or Microsoft Forms, or through a polling app like Slido or Poll Everywhere. In a larger class, an instructor might use iClicker responses to get a general sense of student perceptions. Whatever form is used, the instructor should give students time in class to complete the survey. That will ensure the broadest possible participation.
- Written feedback as part of an assignment. Including a self-assessment and a course assessment as part of an assignment has several benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it can signal to students that success in a class is a shared responsibility. Some scholars have criticized student surveys of teaching because survey questions often suggest that the instructor is solely responsible for the success or failure of a course. This can perpetuate a consumeristic mindset among students. A written reflection helps make students partners in learning. It also helps them work on metacognition (by reflecting on how they learn) and helps instructors learn more about students. Ultimately, it also gives instructors detailed feedback on a class.
Example of feedback as part of an assignment
Here’s an example from Doug Ward (journalism and mass communications), who starts by having students set learning goals early in the semester. He talks with students about course learning goals in the first week, explaining that individuals come to the class with different backgrounds and different aspirations. Reflecting on their goals and their learning can help them better understand what they need to accomplish in the class but also what they need to accomplish later on in college and in their careers. Students reflect on their learning goals at midterm and at the end of the semester. Combined, the three assignments (setting goals and reflecting at midterm and at the end of a course) usually count for 10% of the course grade. Students get full credit for each reflection unless it is clear they put in little or no effort. Here’s an excerpt from a syllabus explaining the work to students:
Create your learning goals in a separate electronic journal entry. Your learning goals should contain a reflection on why you are taking the course and what you hope to gain from it. Here’s a format you can follow to help you get started. This isn’t a required format. Rather, it is intended to give you a sense of some things that lead to good learning goals. (Ward delays this until the end of the second week to give students time to get a feel for the class and to think about what they want to accomplish.)
- Start with your interests. What facets of the major are you most interested in? What would you like to learn more about?
- Discuss your strengths and weaknesses in relation to those goals. What areas are you most comfortable with? What areas do you need work in and why?
- Consider what you would like to learn from this class. How might this class help you bolster your strengths and shore up your weaknesses? What class topics are you most interested in? What topics would you like to pursue beyond those listed?
- Create a rough plan. How will achieve your learning goals? How will your individual project fit into that? How will you prepare yourself to learn?
This is due in the week before spring break (or fall break). Revisit the learning goals you set at the beginning of class. Then reflect on your goals, your work in the class, and the structure of the class. Here’s a general format, but you are free to add anything you think is important.
- Are your original learning goals still valid? Do you need to revise any of them? Why or why not?
- Explain how you worked toward those goals.Where have you succeeded? Where could you have done better?
- What aspects of the course have been most helpful in your learning?
- What aspects of the course could be improved in the final weeks of the semester?
In your final entry, evaluate yourself and the course. You can use material from your midterm reflection (if it still fits), but you should go beyond that reflection as you think about your work in the class during the semester. Here’s a general format, but again you are free to add anything you think is important:
- Did you achieve the learning goals you set for yourself at the beginning of the semester? Why or why not?
- How did you work toward those goals?
- Where did you succeed? Where could you have done better? Why?
- What aspects of the course have been most helpful in your learning?
- What aspects of the course could be improved in future semesters?
- What’s one piece of advice you would give someone who plans to take this course in the future?
Gathering more-frequent feedback
Many instructors use exam wrappers, assignment reflections, and frequent surveys during a semester to gather feedback.
- Exam wrappers. This is an extra sheet that accompanies an exam. It often asks student such questions as how they studied for the exam, how much time they spent preparing for the exam, and how confident they are about doing well on the exam. This approach can help instructors gather feedback about student study habits, allowing them to help students prepare more effectively for future exams. It also helps students recognize how much they have (or haven’t) prepared for an exam.
- Assignment reflections. Like exam wrappers, assignment reflections often ask students to think about how they went about preparing and creating an assignment. Laura Kirk in theatre and dance uses a modified version of this approach, asking students to reflect weekly on their work and on learning goals in her classes. She usually has five short questions and gives students the option of leaving video feedback through Canvas. This approach has the added benefit of allowing her to get to know students better. She provides feedback on each response, redirecting students if needed or helping them catch up on concepts they may have missed.
- Frequent surveys. Ravi Shanmugam in business has had considerable success with this approach. He gives students time in class to fill out a brief survey about such things as engagement in the class, use of course material, and effectiveness of class activities. He has also experimented with an approach of asking smaller groups of students to provide more substantial feedback, rotating this among all students during a semester. The frequent student feedback has allowed him to tweak elements of a class or to revisit material students were unsure of.
Make time to talk with students
Whatever approach you take for gathering feedback during a semester, it is essential to talk to students about their comments and to explain what you took away from them. Do you plan to make changes? If so, what? Did students suggest changes you don’t plan to make? If so, why? That sort of transparency allows them to see that you have taken their suggestions seriously and to better understand why a class is structured in a particular way or how the approaches an instructor uses may ultimately improve their learning. If you fail to talk to students about their feedback, you run the risk of alienating them or reinforcing misperceptions they may have.
One of the biggest problems with end-of-semester student surveys of teaching is that students don’t think they make any difference. They never see the results of the surveys and never see changes an instructor might make in future versions of a course. Gathering midterm feedback can actually improve participation in end-of-semester surveys because it helps students feel more invested in the class (Young, Joines, Standish and Gallagher, 2019). Again, though, that depends on how the instructor uses that feedback and how transparent the instructor is with students.
Bullock, C. D. (2003). Online Collection of Midterm Student Feedback. New Directions for Teaching & Learning, 2003(96), 95-102.
Morley, D. (2014). Assessing the Reliability of Student Evaluations of Teaching: Choosing the Right Coefficient. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 39(2), 127-139.
Overall, J.U., and Marsh, H.W., 1979. Midterm Feedback from Students: Its Relationship to Instructional Improvement and Students’ Cognitive and Affective Outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology 71(6): 856-865.
Snooks, M.K., Neeley, N.E., and Revere, L. (2007). Midterm Student Feedback: Results of a Pilot Study. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 18(3): 55-73.
Snooks, M. K., Neeley, S. E., & Williamson, K. M. (2004). 7: From SGID and GIFT to BBQ: Streamlining Midterm Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching and Learning. To Improve the Academy, 22(1), 110-124.
Wu, L. S. (1993). Effects of student ratings feedback in improving college teaching. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. Ann Arbor.
Young, K., Joines, J., Standish, T., and Gallagher, V. (2019). Student evaluations of teaching: the impact of faculty procedures on response rates. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 44(1): 37-49.