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On the Value of Feedback

Every fall one of my co-workers and I teach a class for a bunch of students in a rather unique situation. They’re freshmen who are taking two “linked” courses, meaning that all students in each course have to take the other course as well. One is a history course and the other is a writing course, and between the two classes, there are between 5 and 6 assignments that our library session must prepare the students to accomplish.

Well, this past spring and summer, the library acquired several rich resources that seemed tailor-made for these classes. The problem is, there was simply not enough time to introduce all four of the resources that we considered most important. (There are LOTS of other resources that we gathered on a research guide for them, but we’d pared the class down to four and couldn’t in good conscience pare it down any farther.) So we thought we’d try something new.

Operating under the assumption that because these students see each other every single day they’d have plenty of time to help each other out, we split them into four groups, each of which had a set of tasks designed to teach them their particular resource. Then we spent the last part of class having each group teach a couple of important points to their classmates. And overall, we thought it went alright. We were crunched for time even as it was, but we were hopeful that we’d started discussions that could continue on the course’ Moodle forum and in subsequent classes.

Then the writing professor did something for which I am very grateful. She had each student write one thing they thought worked well in our session and one thing they thought didn’t work so well. To a person, every single student listed the splitting up into groups as the one and only thing they did not appreciate about the session. Wow! When do you EVER get 100% consistent results from a survey? Never, that’s when. Almost every student listed the time they had to work with their resources as one of the most valuable things about the class, but every single one of them wanted a chance to try the other resources, and most worried that they won’t learn what they need to know from their classmates.

This doesn’t mean that they might not end up being just fine, or that they might not be able to learn from their peers. But it does point out that maybe freshmen, overwhelmed by the prospect of their first college-level research paper, might appreciate a little bit more direction, a little bit more explicit instruction.

So next year, we’ll have to think up another creative solution. The writing professor has suggested that perhaps expanding to two library sessions is in order… we’ll have to see.