Learning From My Students

When I concluded my teaching role in May, I realized how much I learned from being the instructor of this course for the second time consecutively. The learning happened within the same semester and across two semesters. When I co-taught the course in 2020, I came up with a group-discussion assignment to replace the planned activity. In the planned assignment, students’ task was to submit a written group reflection of each module’s (there are seven in the syllabus). Their mid-term feedback indicated this was not adding much value to their learning as it was similar to the individual reflection they were tasked to do each week.

Though not usually a student favorite in my experience, group work has a lot of value in helping students develop their ability to work in teams as well as the communication and leadership skills. I recognized the importance of keeping the assessment as a group work, but changed the delivery to something much more interactive among themselves. In the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, there were no more group reflections. Instead, students participated in a group discussion among themselves, with instructors observing. (APPLIED LESSON ONE) The students task included reading required materials for the week, divide the task among themselves, coordinate to do preparation work beforehand, and facilitate the discussion. In the groups I oversaw, the discussion in all except one was fluid where I ended up doing the facilitation. However, one of the groups had a different approach. Each student spoke about their assigned topics for a few minutes and posed a few questions at the end for further discussion. It worked very well.

When I taught the same course in the 2021offering, I incorporated two such activities, one in the first half of the semester and another in the second. Learning from the previous year, I added an instruction that students were to come up with the order of speaking instead of the discussion in a haphazard manner. However, I still kept it open for them to be as creative as they want in how they conduct the discussion. During the first group discussion, none of the groups had a well formed structure other than having an order of speaking. A pre-determined order of presenters seemed to have helped as it took the guesswork out of the equation and required less involvement from me other than commenting or asking questions. However, I still had more involvement in the facilitation than I had planned. I realized being undergraduate students, they may have needed more structure than that.

It seemed students enjoyed the activity, but I wanted to find out if there were any changes they would like to see so they could learn even better (other than my assessment for the need for structure). In the anonymous mid-term survey, many of them said they needed more structure! First of all, I was glad to know all of them said it helped them learn the course content. Knowing that this was a meaningful exercise was very gratifying. I want my students to learn and enjoy the process! Moreover, knowing their need for more structure from themselves was very useful in making the activity work for them.

In the second group discussion, I added instructions to make it more structured. I applied the same approach the group in the 2020 cohort used: each student speaks for a few minutes on a topic, poses questions at the end. I also doubled the time from 30 minutes to 60 minutes to allow time to explore questions posed by each student. (During the mid-term survey, some students had mentioned that they were not able to discuss all the points they found worth exploring with their peers.) All discussions were organized, efficient, with plenty of opportunities for further exploration of the topics. The structured I learned from the previous cohort of students worked very well.

This assignment was a great learning experience for me. I always check in with my students in any way possible, by asking their feedback informally and through surveys formally. Since the whole purpose of the class is their successful learning, student feedback has been an invaluable tool to make sure that is the case. This assignment was a great exercise in how student feedback can be used to design activities that enhanced their learning. It also shows that the instructor can directly learn from students as I learned and applied the approach which one of the groups used.

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