Have you ever tried to swim in a lap pool with your eyes closed? How long were you able to go without hitting a lane divider? I can get about 5 or 6 strokes in before I hit and need to correct my direction. I’ve done some triathlons, and one of the hardest parts of racing is swimming in a straight line. You can train all you’d like on lanes, looking down at a lane marker to go straight, but swimming in open water is a different challenge. The thing that worked best for me was to take some number of strokes, say 10, and then take a look to make sure you’re pointing in the right direction. As your muscles get more tired you tend to wander in different directions.

I’ve been asking my students for quarterly feedback for 4 or 5 years, and I’d put it in the top three changes that I’ve made that have most affected my teaching. I use the feedback to keep me honest. It’s hard to open up to anonymous feedback from teenagers, you think the worst is going to happen. But I’ve found that not only do they give marvelous feedback (“course” correction, do you see what I did there), but they tend to appreciate the addition of another data point that you give a damn, and that their input matters to you. There is so much good stuff that they have to say, and if you provide them time, space, and importantly, optional anonymity; they will hand you pure gold. It doesn’t have to be a long feedback form, my quarterly feedback form is only 6 questions:

Here are some quotes from this past feedback session, for some context, these are Juniors and Seniors in advanced math classes.

I love how in depth they think about how they learn best, and they definitely don’t all agree on their favorite methods. I love how they give me constructive feedback and compliments in the same response. I also deeply appreciate their pushback on thing that we need to work on as a class. And this isn’t some royal “we” going on here, they often see changes that they themselves can make to improve their learning (not that they always take themselves up on their own advice!)

An important part of this feedback cycle is to acknowledge their responses publicly. I like to try and get the gist of each question and write down my takeaways. I also think it’s useful to take a comment that I disagree with and explain my thinking. For example, there is a group of students who would rather I was more flexible with my reassessment policy. I explain to them that I wish I had a time turner because then I could provide each and every student as many opportunities as they needed to prove their knowledge on a topic.

I hope you can find a time to try something similar in your classes. It’s hard to not focus on a negative bit of feedback, but I’ve found that I’ve gotten ever so slightly better at seeing the big picture. You gotta bang into some lane dividers to keep your path.

April 10, 2017

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