The business world has embraced the notion of learning through feedback loops for decades. It is the foundation of kaizen—the philosophy of continuous improvement—which was first implemented by Toyota, setting a new standard for global manufacturing. It is also the basis of agile software development, which enables small, incremental changes to happen continuously, so user behavior can be observed and incorporated more quickly.
Similarly, higher education contains many—often unused—opportunities to benefit from this kind of ongoing feedback. University courses, for instance, provide ample opportunities to emphasize continuous improvement and let students learn from their mistakes. Yet as class sizes have increased, particularly for undergraduate courses, many institutions have leaned heavily on high-stakes midterms and final exams to assess and provide feedback to students. This not only creates a lot of added stress for a generation defined by high rates of anxiety, but this approach also means that students miss the chance to learn from continuous feedback.
Reliance on high-stakes assessments also puts faculty at a disadvantage. Too often, educators operate with little insight into what students already know, how well they are progressing, and which instructional approaches are working (and which should be abandoned). Without feedback loops, it’s difficult to address students as individual learners, let alone improve course delivery to engage students both intellectually and emotionally.
The good news is that digital learning tools can help educators create feedback loops that enhance the learning experience—not just over time, but in the moment itself. Here are three ways educators can not only collect this real-time data, but use it to make adjustments and better meet your students where they are.
1. Assign More Frequent Pre-Class or Check-In Work to Assess Learning
Instead of administering large, infrequent assignments or exams, educators can use “small data,” gathered by establishing frequent touchpoints to assess and facilitate learning and shape the student experience. Some digital teaching and learning tools can make this far easier to do in even the largest classes. For instance, consistently using quizzes and interactive polls offers instructors a much richer purview of student learning than can be gleaned from a few lengthy multiple-choice exams throughout the semester.
2. Ask Students Who They Are, Then Explore and Celebrate Their Differences
Data collection doesn’t have to apply just to assessments and grading; to make learning more relevant and meaningful, it can also help you understand who your students are.
To ensure students see their own passions and life experiences reflected in the learning process, Demian Hommel, coauthor of this article, begins each term with a survey to capture his students’ academic goals, interests, and a range of demographic information. Armed with these insights, he’s able to reflect his students’ unique viewpoints; as he engages them using interactive polls and discussions on various topics, he’s also able to see the changes that may emerge as a result of the course content.
3. Use In-Class Polls to Monitor Student Well-Being
Hommel uses a simple in-class poll to check periodically on how his students are feeling. In his experience, students appreciate the simple act of demonstrating concern for their well-being. Asking them to characterize their mental or emotional state means that, at least once that day, they’ve had a moment to reflect.
This also provides an opportunity to reinforce to students the importance of seeking help, whether by reaching out to their instructor or taking advantage of campus services. Other signals, such as a lack of attendance or participation, may also indicate that a student needs extra support.
Better Insights Lead to Better Learning
Gauging student progress early and often and providing students with the ongoing feedback they crave can make the difference in whether a student excels in their college career or does not. Technology can help, but not unless instructors take steps to create more frequent touchpoints to check in on student progress.
Small data is not just about keeping students from falling through the cracks, either. By combining small data with mentorship, we can create more moments of insight to help students understand their own progress, the value of what they are learning, and the ways it can be applied to work that is meaningful, financially rewarding, and beneficial to society. That’s good for students and for the long-term success of higher education.
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