Weekly Teaching Note
Nov 13 2013
NYIT Faculty Talk About How We Know Whether our Students are Learning

“I would ask my students what did you learn today? Many couldn't answer the question.” – Carlo Hallak, NYITCOM

How do we know that our students are learning what we are teaching? Do we check in at frequent intervals with our students to see whether they understand the material, or do we teach and hope for the best? And when we do check in, how do we know we are getting an accurate picture of their progress?

In the last two weeks of October, the Center for Teaching and Learning offered a two-week online workshop called “Are They Learning?” The online format enabled faculty and staff from different campuses to exchange ideas: 34 people participated from our campuses in Manhattan, Nanjing, NYIT Online, Old Westbury, and Vancouver. Another six NYIT faculty members joined as ‘resource people’ by reviewing workshop materials, facilitating the discussion, and sharing their expertise.

Classroom check-in techniques provide a way for us to get immediate feedback on what and how well our students are learning. The techniques are simple, non-graded, anonymous, in-class activities that give both you and your students useful feedback on the teaching and learning process. This information enables us to structure our teaching in a way that enhances student learning. At the same time, classroom check-in techniques provide a “reality check” for our students, helping them see the extent to which they have mastered a particular concept.

Classroom check-in techniques address questions such as

  • Are my students learning what I think I am teaching?
  • Who is learning and who is not learning?
  • What am I doing that is useful for these students?
  • What am I doing that is not useful for these students?

If we were to sum up the benefits of using check-in techniques for faculty and students, the list would probably look something like this:

For faculty, more frequent use of check-in techniques can:

  • Provide immediate feedback about the day-to-day learning and teaching process at a time when it is still possible to make mid-course corrections.
  • Provide useful information about student learning with a much lower investment of time compared to tests, papers, and other traditional means of learning assessment.
  • Provide information on student engagement.
  • Help foster good rapport with students and increase the efficacy of teaching and learning.
  • Encourage the view that teaching is a formative process that evolves over time with feedback.

For students, more frequent use of check-in techniques can:

  • Help students become better monitors of their own learning.
  • Help break down feelings of anonymity, especially in larger courses.
  • Point out the need to alter study skills.
  • Provide concrete evidence that the instructor cares about learning.

Workshop participants shared how they use various check-in techniques to learn about student learning:

Cecilia Dong, Engineering and Computing Sciences, Manhattan, stated: “One of the check-in techniques I use in my senior design class is a one-sentence summary, I ask students to explain their project to someone who does not have technical background (in layman terms) at the proposal stage. This helps them to practice their communication skills and reflect on their project’s objective. This also serves as a means to train their critical thinking by putting their knowledge to solve a real world problem and being able to explain it in a 2-3 minute pitch.”

Farzana Gandhi, Architecture and Design, Old Westbury, shares: “In many of my architecture design studio and seminar courses, I often ask students to step up and become "professors for the day." I ask them to present some of the major points of a previous lesson and then comment on each others work (using the evaluative criteria that has already been discussed) in pairs of two and/or in a large class group setting. Students often learn better from other students. To me, this is a spin on the check in technique called "directed paraphrasing."“

Jim Martinez, Education, uses a variation on the one-minute summary: “I call it the 1 minute reflection. Immediately after group work I go around the room and ask students to say something about how they participated in the group activity and how they perceived that choices were made in the group. I try to identify through the reflections the patterns or themes that emerge. For example, students will tend to use the tools, resources and concepts that were introduced immediately prior to the group work. Another example: students that self-identify as leaders will automatically assume those roles. I encourage students to get out of comfort zones during check-in by suggesting that they try on new roles during group work. I use the 1 minute reflections to help me figure out where the students are at and as a feedback mechanism to prepare for the next group activity.”

Monique Taylor, Global Academic Programs, Nanjing, described how she uses small groups in class. “I have large groups work as small groups and then the small groups talk as one voice or voices in a cluster when we come back together as a large group/I like having the room rearranged so students work in 5-7 or 10-12 etc etc as needed. I will put an outline in lieu of a lecture posted at front and have students fill in the lecture scaffolding from study questions that I provide or that students must develop. This allows me to walk around the room and teach something differently with each group I visit. Sometimes I will present an entire assignment to the larger group but ask each smaller group only to take a piece that they must present or post on the board at end of one class session or in next session (like a jigsaw puzzle).”

Anne Sanderson, Arts and Sciences, brings in another aspect of learning: “We so often leave out one of the most important parts of the equation: students learn best when there is an emotional connection. For some reason, we don't talk much about this. Whether the student is 5 or 50, the emotional connection with the teacher, with classmates, and yes, with the content, creates an atmosphere of trust where real learning can take place. It may not always be measurable by conventional assessment, but it happens.”


Olena Zhadko, PhD 
Instructional Designer, Center for Teaching and Learning
New York Institute of Technology

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