Case Study: How One Community College Used Feedback to Transform Teaching

In 2016, Everett Community College celebrated its 75th anniversary. That same year, out of 126 applicants nationwide, the college was one of six institutions to receive an IDEA impact grant. It was also the only two-year college awarded a grant. The funding enabled Peg Balachowski, Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning, to realize her dream: introduce more of her colleagues to the value of formative assessment in the classroom.

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“Empowering faculty with data gives them the freedom to be creative and nimble throughout the term.”

– Peg Balachowski, Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning

Balachowski, who joined the EvCC faculty in 2003, began her higher education career as an instructor of mathematics. Her own triumphs and challenges in the classroom taught her early on about the value of student feedback throughout a course, not just at the end. Despite the tedious nature of using pen and paper to collect student input, her belief in formative assessment never wavered. Today, as Director of EvCC’s Center of Transformative Teaching, she remains passionate about the success of students, which she knows is inextricably linked to the professional development of faculty. She realizes that due to traditional course evaluation methods, faculty tend to rely on end-of-term feedback. But because summative feedback can’t shed light on the learning process as it’s actually happening, any positive impact is limited to future students. By contrast, a formative approach enables faculty to glean contemporaneous insights and adapt pedagogical methods for immediate results.

Piloting a Better Approach

EvCC’s pilot program was officially called Using Formative Feedback to Improve Learning Outcomes. It promoted the use of the Feedback tool, an online instrument within Campus Labs® Course Evaluations. The program took place during the 2017 winter and summer quarters, and 21 instructors representing diverse academic disciplines—including English, English as a Second Language, English Language Acquisition, geography, math, biology, psychology, engineering, accounting, nursing, and medical assisting and transcription—volunteered to participate. Nine of the faculty were full-time, while 12 were part-time. Their classes, all at the undergraduate level, reflected a mix of traditional face-to-face instruction, online instruction, and a hybrid approach.

Faculty volunteers represented a range of attitudes. One instructor remarked: “The biggest reason I want to use instant feedback is to build a culture of feedback so that students feel comfortable coming to me with questions and concerns.” Another explained: “I tell my students that learning involves being okay with beginnings and being uncomfortable. If you only stay in the safe, comfortable zone, you’re probably not learning much, and that’s why I volunteered to participate in the project. It does feel uncomfortable, risky, and vulnerable because it’s an unknown, but I’m looking forward to learning.” Regardless of whether the instructors were feeling excited, trepidatious, or even skeptical, they all were focused on trying something new to strengthen the impact of their teaching

A Catalyst for More Intentional Conversations

The formative instrument used in the pilot consisted of seven items: six questions related to teaching methodology and one overall question. The first six questions, based on research conducted by IDEA, focused on student perceptions of how an instructor’s teaching methodology did or didn’t support their learning. The final question asked students if they had understood the material presented in class that day. Students shared their feedback in real time from their computer or mobile device using a URL. Faculty administered the feedback survey a total of 3-4 times during a 10-week term.

Student responses were not anonymous and could be seen only by the individual faculty member. Since faculty had sole access to the results, they could easily follow up with students who voiced concerns. After each session using the Feedback tool, instructors agreed to share their impressions with other instructors in the pilot via the discussion board in EvCC’s learning management system. They also read academic white papers related to the seven questions, focusing on the areas in which they received low scores based on student input. Instructors then developed a plan for continual improvement.

Encouraging Faculty Reflections

Once the course was over, each instructor submitted a reflection paper centered on three questions: What was the student response to the weekly assessment surveys? How did you evaluate and utilize the feedback you received from students? How did your teaching strategies shift or change, based on student feedback? Instructors were encouraged to describe the trends from each session, share what they had learned about their own teaching practices, and present the student survey results on the use of feedback. At the end of the term, students were also asked to evaluate the technology-enabled method of formative feedback.

The pilot program yielded a host of tangible and intangible benefits. First, the Feedback tool provided a paperless, fast, and easy method for soliciting direct input. And because of the instantaneous nature of the results, instructors could begin thinking about pedagogical tweaks even before the next class meeting.

Setting the Stage for Better Outcomes

Beyond modifying their specific teaching techniques, they became more intentional about course goals and better at articulating learning objectives during class. Instructors also became more invested in the success of their students, as evidenced by an increase in one-to-one interactions, whether in person or online. They made more of an effort to address students by name, and rather than rely on group announcements in the LMS, they began sending individual emails as well. Explanations about course material became clearer and more concise, a direct result of feedback from students who finally had an easy and direct way to comment on teaching delivery. Faculty were also more explicit about real-world applications of the subject matter, whether in the context of another course or a post-college career path.

Drawing on data about trends during the academic term, as well as the written reflections, Balachowski was able to engage instructors in more meaningful conversations about their goals for professional development. It came as no surprise to her that faculty who had embraced the Feedback tool with their students also saw stronger end-of-course evaluations. Additionally, student learning outcomes and retention rates improved with the use of feedback.

Looking ahead, Peg Balachowski is more focused than ever on promoting the use of student feedback. She’s inspired by opportunities for more responsive teaching— and more successful students. “Keeping students in your class and helping them succeed—not just with a good grade but with deep learning—can only happen when students are fully engaged.”

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