Campus News

UK instructors show the value of responsive teaching

Conrad Davies teaching.
Conrad Davies, faculty lecturer in the College of Communication and Information. Arden Barnes | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 12, 2022) A common refrain in educational circles is that we don’t teach the course; we teach the students in the room. This suggests that in addition to adopting evidence-based and “best” practices for curricular design and teaching, it’s just as important that we get to know our students as learners. This idea is reflected in the first principle of the University of Kentucky’s current strategic plan — putting students first. 

With this mindset, the classroom becomes a dialogic space where we collaborate with students to make their learning meaningful, purposeful and successful.

Our student body is wonderfully diverse, with unique identities, interests, perspectives and goals. No two classes, it’s often said, are the same. Instructors have always known the value of better understanding their students, but since the pandemic’s disruptions in 2020 they have increasingly sought ways to refine their courses and teaching based on student feedback. Among the strategies instructors have employed, many have reached out to the Center for the Enhancement for Learning and Teaching (CELT) for its midsemester student feedback service.

Before 2020, CELT typically facilitated the midsemester feedback process for 40-50 course sections each academic year. For the 2020-21 academic year, however, CELT facilitated feedback for 131 sections, and for the 2021-22 academic year that number rose to 171 sections. Along with DIY methods that other instructors have employed, these numbers point to a larger story about how instructors are seeking to involve student voice in decisions around curricula and teaching strategies, all the while inviting students to reflect intentionally on their own learning strategies in the class.

A voluntary and confidential process, CELT midsemester feedback can take three forms: an in-class visit on campus or on Zoom/Microsoft Teams, and an out-of-class survey. CELT staff work with instructors to determine the best questions to ask students, with students to make sense of their learning experiences and perspectives, and with instructors again to debrief on the feedback and identify actionable or useful insights. In addition to providing feedback with enough time left in the semester to make adjustments, another benefit of the process is the rapport and transparency that it cultivates between students and instructors.

Reflecting on his experience of the feedback process during the Spring 2022 semester, Savio Poovathingal, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said that “even though you tell students that they can give you suggestions, I think they are generally hesitant to speak up directly. But when you say, ‘hey, we are going to have this feedback opportunity with CELT,’ and provide a more formal way of receiving feedback, the students are more willing to give suggestions.”

For Poovathingal and his students, the process was very much about communication.

“Afterwards, I went back to them and said, ‘these are the suggestions I received and these are the things I’m going to do.’ It allowed students to see that they really can offer suggestions and comments without seeming negative.” Even if some suggestions didn’t fit with the course design, he used that opportunity to be transparent with students about his instructional choices. “For the things I couldn’t change, I told them, ‘I hear you, but here is why it has to happen that way,’ and that gave them more context for their learning.”

Poovathingal added that “student reactions, in my experience, have been positive.”

The spirit of communication and collaboration was also evident to students. Abigail Lanter, junior mechanical engineering major and a student in Poovathingal’s class, said the feedback session “changed the morale of the classroom. During the discussion, we were all brainstorming and sharing all kinds of feedback and ideas. We got very excited. We felt very heard.”

Lanter said the subsequent class meetings felt “more like a conversation. We felt more comfortable asking questions. And it made class more enjoyable. It showed he cared about our learning enough to alter some components of the course. Those changes had a positive impact on our learning and our grades.”

While feedback sessions have a positive impact on the course at hand, they also influence instructors’ teaching over time as well as students’ overall success in a program. Poovathingal’s long-term goals include strategic course improvements and helping students in foundational ways.

“I hope to use student feedback a few times to refine a given course over time,” he indicated. “I also hope to inspire more students to enter my discipline. They will take many more courses in the field and hopefully these changes have a positive impact on their learning in those courses, too.”

All instructors at UK are invited to request midsemester feedback from CELT. Read more about the process and submit requests on the CELT website.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.