Monday, October 3, 2011

Embracing student feedback with word clouds

There are many ways you want to start your day. Hearing students rapid-fire complaints about an upcoming assignment isn't generally one of them. I started many days last semester where several students relentlessly complained about an assignment in the course. They didn't do the work, they didn't like the assignment, they didn't see how it fit the course, they did not want to do it. None of these complaints are new, but they can be incredibly frustrating. I felt defensive and tired of it. In fact, the instinct to roll my eyes had to be heavily fought. When we finally finished the project though, most students loved it.

I saw one of my former students who lead this complaint-brigade the other day on campus. She stopped me and said, "I'm so glad we had to do that assignment. It was so helpful for my major!" I asked her why she spent every day complaining about it during her semester in class and she said, "I thought it sounded stupid. I didn't get it at first." 

It was a big lesson for me. While I can still sense the (slight) desire to roll my eyes and tell the student to trust me as the professor when they express concerns like this, there is a grain of truth to the students' comments. Why not put the ego aside and embrace the student feedback? Let's use such comments to clarify and redirect future projects, and (the new lesson for me) rename, repackage, or re-present an assignment that led students to whine/complain the previous term.

In short, we need to market our assignments to help EXCITE students about a project while explaining what is expected and how it will be assessed.

One way to determine if your assignment falls into the "students will whine about it" category is to put it into a word cloud. In the past, I have mentioned the usefulness of Wordle, a word-cloud tool and I used it again after the summer term to help re-package a few of my assignments. Word clouds show which words most prominently feature in a speech or other written text. The most repeated words are larger in size. Wordle is great for speech analysis. I have also used it to analyze my syllabus. Seeing which words come up most frequently helped me to see the assignment from a new perspective. My wiki class assignment (the one the students were moaning about last semester) is one I am currently repackaging to have better student appeal (and therefore cause less need for class time to explain, justify, and address student issues). Here is the Wordle of the wiki project last semester:
Before restructuring

 The most prominent words before I restructured did not apporpriately identify or explain the actual assignment--which might explain why some students did not realize the importance or impact of the assignment. Of course the assignment seemed clear to me (from my insider-pedagogical vantage), but something was obviously leading to student distress. I reflected on the mission and intent of the wiki assignment. I re-wrote the assignment description and information after seeking student input. Then I put it into a word cloud. Here is the result:

After restructuring
The students can now see that this is a wiki project, a group project, with digital information, links, content, and application of chapters (by pulling out the most prominent words). Even further, they can see some of the expectations and assessment options--items that don't show up nearly as well in the earlier word cloud. This semester I have had MUCH less confusion, complaining, and discontent over the assignment. My concerted effort to repackage the assignment from the student vantage has seemed to reduce the stress and uncertainty of the students. The result? Better informed students who buy into a class project/assignment and a professor who does not feel she has to repeatedly justify an assignment (while avoiding eye rolling).

Why not give it a try? Explore how your assignments reflect your goals...and try a word cloud to help you "see" what the students may see.

[Eager for more? Try to put your student evaluations into a similar format for review...see what characteristics, assignments, etc. the students write about most frequently. Use the student feedback to guide your work and the purposeful, pedagogical changes you make in your instruction/course.] 

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