How's it going so far?: Students react to writing assignments and activities

Pamela Flash

Last month’s Teaching with Writing blog focused on strategies instructors can use when providing students with feedback on their writing. This month’s blog turns the tables by describing tools students can use when providing instructors with feedback on their writing instruction. Yes, this sort of feedback is routinely gathered at the end of the semester, but getting it at a semester’s midpoint is even better. When we collect students’ perspectives partway through a  semester, we still have time to put their ideas into action. These midpoint reactions and insights can help us make some adjustments, straighten out some confusion, and improve our instruction in ways that students recognize (on end-of-semester ratings and elsewhere) as valuable to their learning (McGowan & Osguthorpe, 2011).

Top of road sign for MidPoint Cafe with blue sky background

Why collect mid-semester feedback on writing assignments and instruction?

Because teaching with writing, developing course-relevant and productive writing assignments, and assessing writing in ways that are valid and equitable are neither intuitive nor masterable practices. We ask for student reactions because we want to…

  • Check in on all individual students’ understanding of writing assignments (both formal and informal) and to learn more about their writing processes. This is an essential component of inclusive and equitable instruction. 
    Learn whether students find feedback on their writing (as provided by course instructors or peers) and grading criteria just, germane, and useful.  
  • Model reflective practice and demonstrate commitment to student success.
  • Ask students to reflect on the current and future relevance of writing assignments and the writing processes they’re developing, providing opportunities to develop metacognitive capacity.
  • Initiate a dialogue with students about the course and their learning in it.
  • Avoid the ‘too little too late’ scenario that can occur when we learn of students’ concerns and questions in end-of-semester course feedback, i.e., when they’re too late to address.

What sorts of questions should I include?

Knowing that asking too many questions can result in low response rates, you’ll want to focus your questions on course activities that can still be adjusted. Five questions is a good target number. For large-enrollment courses, you may want to use a simple Google Survey. Here’s a customizable student-facing survey pre-loaded with possibilities. For smaller courses, or courses with TA-led sections, you might want to ask questions in an open-ended format which can be delivered via survey or hard copy index card. Here is a previously posted Teaching with Writing blog providing multiple question options. Finally, Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning provides lists of questions that can be adapted to focus specifically on writing-related aspects of course instruction. 

How should I collect this feedback?

  • Before inviting students’ responses, tell them why you’re asking them for their input, how you plan to use it, and what you’ve done to ensure their responses are anonymous. (The online survey above doesn’t collect students' email addresses or other identifiers).
  • If you teach a course with synchronous meetings, provide time (5–10 minutes) for students to insert comments on an online survey they can access from their devices or on a card or form. Doing this in class increases the response rate, which helps to ensure a representative response set. Those who teach courses that make in-class activity impossible might create a customized survey that can be emailed to students or linked through Canvas. These items could also be used in Canvas’s embedded and customizable survey tool. Either method provides only you with results. It is a good idea to inform your students of this as well.

What should I do with the feedback I collect?

  • After thanking students for taking time to provide you with their perspective, you can provide a summary of paraphrased response trends.
  • Seize the opportunity to highlight writing activities that seem to work well and remind students of your rationale for using these writing activities.  
  • Describe your plans for addressing students’ questions and concerns. If students express concerns about aspects of writing instruction that are not adjustable, describe potential work-around strategies they might use and/or remind them of the learning objectives that underlie the activities and your rationale for continuing them.
  • Talk to us! Members of the WAC team are happy to review student feedback with you and strategize next steps. 

An important final caveat

Be aware of potential bias in student feedback. Some research suggests that student evaluations may evidence students’ reaction to instructors rather than instruction, and biases against women, multilingual individuals, or instructors from underrepresented populations can be indicated (Basow & Martin, 2012). With this in mind, consider student evaluations as one data source in your instruction, note any prevailing themes, and decide how to respond. One option is to include external observation and anonymous discussion with students for more real-time, and often more honest, feedback. A member of the WAC team would be happy to facilitate these meetings with students.

Works Cited and Consulted

Basow, S. A., & Martin, J. L. (2012). Bias in student evaluations. In M. E. Kite (Ed.), Effective evaluation of teaching: A guide for faculty and administrators (pp. 40–49). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Diamond, M. R. (2004). The usefulness of structured mid-term feedback as a catalyst for change in higher education classes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(3), 217–231.

McGowan, W., & Osguthorpe, R. (2011). Student and faculty perceptions of effects of midcourse evaluation. In Miller, J. & Groccia, J. (Eds), To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, 29, 160-172.

Payette, P. R. & Brown M. C. (Jan. 2018). Gathering Mid-semester Feedback: Three Variations to Improve Instruction. Idea Paper #67.

Further Support

For more information about teaching with writing, check out our Teaching Resources on the TWW website. Our WAC program hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Contact us to schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation.