Teaching Matters

Professor Iain Gordon - School of Mathematics

Prof Iain Gordon discusses the use of mid-semester feedback in the School of Mathematics.



Professor Iain Gordon – Head of School of Mathematics

“The mid-semester feedback that we're talking about is a way for students and lecturers to be able to have a little way of discussing with each other how things are developing in their lectures and to be able to react if there's anything which is coming across from students' feedback on things that they found interesting, difficult or whatever that we might want to emphasise.

It began, I'm aware, four years ago with one individual in the school, who was asking actually for a little bit of feedback at the end of every lecture. This was commented on by the students as really very helpful so if there was something that hadn't been understood, in the next lecture the lecture was saying something about that. And that lecturer then won the College of Science and Engineering prize for the best course. That was a very helpful thing.

That was then followed up in different stages by different people and morphed into this situation that we have now where for the last couple of years we've been asking students in the middle of the semester of each of our courses to give us a little bit of feedback: what they like, what they found more challenging and then for us to react to that feedback, tell the students what they've been saying, have a discussion about it, maybe have some actions, maybe have a celebration if things are going very well.

One of the things that I think that we find very helpful is that the nature of mathematics can be that it is quite a hierarchical subject, so what you learn in week 1 is then used repeatedly in week 2; what you learn in week 2 is used repeatedly in week 3.

One of the ways in which this feedback can be helpful can be if there has been part of the early part of the course that has not necessarily resonated as well with the students as you wanted to, this is a way for us to find that out very quickly and then to be able to react to that.

So the first time that I did this which was I think three or four years ago, I just asked in the middle of this semester at the end of the lecture I gave each student a post card, and just asked them to put one thing that they liked, one thing that they didn't or they weren't happy about in the course, and then what came back was large number of positive comments, and then there was some kind of unanimity about something which was a part of the course that they'd found difficult.

And then in order to be able to react to that then I just took the next lecture and instead of doing whatever I had planned to do at that point, I went back and we went over the material again, which I think the students found very, very helpful, a, because they knew that they'd been listened to and I was concerned about how they were going to learn, and this was going to help them later on in the course, and then b, I found that very helpful as well because if you think about some of the learning that you do as being part of a scaffold, at that point if a part of the scaffold is very, very shoogly, then you're in big trouble for when you get on later in the course.

And this made sure that that part was on a firm foundation which I think was much more important than making sure that we reached a very, very specific outcome in the in the syllabus, but actually that the foundation was there that you could build on more strongly later on. So that was an example of how that feedback worked.

I think it also worked and how we've been using it in the School is I think that we do on the whole do do a good job with our lecturing and that helps to reaffirm that, both for the students that they get a chance to look back, and they get to see, oh yeah I've actually quite enjoyed some of these things that have been in this course, which in the kind of the day-to-day stress of having to do lots of work and so on you don't necessarily keep that back view which can be very helpful and it's also very helpful for the lecturing staff as well when something is going well and they get told that it's going well. They walk a little bit taller.

I think that we view what we've been doing with mid-semester feedback as one part of a much bigger process that the school has been involved with for a long time and is continuing to develop.

And that's to try to make sure that there's a greater whole community of people interested in learning and teaching and talking to each other about what makes that effective, why it's important, what are the outcomes of this and so on. And so for instance we have also in recent years been involving students far more in different processes within the school that affect them, so the introduction of examinations in December was done through a working party that included staff and student representation.

All of the working parties essentially that we have now that have any thing to do with learning and teaching involve student representation. The staff and the students work together on the liaison committee that's convened by students. We have a successful student council.

And what we try to do now is make sure that we have as many different viewpoints as possible in order for us to make good decisions about how the school moves forward, generally in it learning and teaching and also with the individual specific subjects. This is an example of something that works at the individual specific subjects to try to make it better.

So I think it's just a continual process of trying to get better and better and better.”