When end of semester feedback is not enough

picture of dan rittschoff

Daniel Rittschof, who teaches at the Duke University Marine Lab, wants to maximize what his students get out of his course. He likes feedback from his students weekly, so he can make adjustments throughout the course. How does he do this?

He designates two students as delegates for the semester, choosing students who are engaged and outspoken during initial sessions that are conversational. The delegates are tasked with gathering feedback from all of the students in the class, and presenting it to him and the class in a short PowerPoint, generally weekly or biweekly. Dr. Rittschof listens to their findings, “sucks it up,” and responds immediately. He usually makes adjustments to the course to accommodate student’s comments or if not, explains why he does what he does. Therefore, his teaching is continuously modified in response to student comments, which are usually very reasonable and helpful.

The students chosen as delegates take their roles seriously, but with a sense of humor, and learn over time that their comments improve the class.

Dr. Rittschof has learned from the students over the years. For example, he’s learned to anticipate anxiety related to novel material. Therefore, he reassures the students that that they will all have a grip on the material when he finishes the series.

He provided answers to a few of my questions:

Q: How you keep from getting defensive?
A: I take a deep breath and think about the issues.

Q: How do you respond in a way that is positive when you get negative comments from students about things you are doing for good reasons?
A: I’ve done this for several decades—you get good at it over time.  It is very hard at first.

Q: Do you really get feedback weekly?
A: Usually to start, then probably biweekly because we tend to forget.

Q: Can you give some examples of the student feedback?
A: It ranges from wanting to be told what I want them to know to wanting snacks in class. The major class is sensory physiology and perception and the lectures are 2 hours with a break. I tell people that it is ok to eat in class, especially if eating allows them to focus.

Q: Did something happen that inspired you to start this process?
A: Yes, I felt I needed to learn how to teach and realized that each class is different and knowing the students is very helpful.

Q: How have you refined your teaching over your career, because of this feedback process?
A: Yes, I give out a lot of jobs the first day of class. All students in my small classes have a job.

Q: Do you think simply the process of asking students for feedback makes them more positive towards the course?
A: For me yes.

Q: Would you recommend this approach to others?
A: I recommend people do what works for them.