You’ve flipped your classroom, you’re assessing often with quick quizzes, and your students are even finding that regular, low-stakes assessments help their learning.

But now you have a problem—too much data. What do you do with it all and, more importantly, how do you get insights from it that will help improve your teaching? Here are three examples of how you can plug those student responses right back into your course and your teaching, and create a positive feedback loop.

This is the third part of a three-part series on formative assessment. Parts one and two are here:

1. Use it to target your teaching on the fly

Andrew Petto, Distinguished Lecturer Emeritus of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains that student data can be used most effectively in conjunction with the learning objectives you set at the beginning of the course. If you find that students are having trouble with one small facet of the course by assessing them in class, you can correct them, then repeat the problem to check they understand. But on a wider level, continuous assessment makes sure that students are on track, week-by-week, to complete their course; and so, if your students didn’t meet the learning objectives by the end of the semester, you won’t be surprised.

“Knowing where we want our students to go during the term is the first step,” he says. “To assure our students’ success—and to make appropriate adjustments—to our course, we need to know two other things: first, where the students are now, and secondly, are they headed in a direction that will take them to the destination?”

Troy Wood, chemistry professor at SUNY Buffalo, is a great example of somebody who has transformed his classroom by applying lessons from data. He no longer organizes class time around his lectures, but around classroom response questions—he asks as many as he can, checking the results in real time. If he sees a common mistake, he’ll stop and address it; if not, he’ll move on. “It turns out that by using the classroom response systems, I’ve become much more efficient in my lectures,” he says. “I have actually gained time because of doing this.”

One of the common misgivings about classroom response questions is that it’s limited to multiple-choice recall questions. But with Top Hat, you can ask different types of questions.Wood gives the example of using click-on-target questions, which ask students to identify parts of an image or graph and shows a “heat map” of the most common answers. Specifically, he uses this function with the periodic table. “I can ask them, what part of the periodic table has the lowest ionization energy? The highest electron affinity? And wow, do you ever find out what their misconceptions are.”

2. Use student anonymity to your benefit

Data from students within a classroom is valuable—but it has to be honest, and true. In many peer groups, that’s hard to come by if everybody knows what everyone else is writing. That’s why there can be a great deal of value to professors and students in not knowing which students answers come from.

Matthew Numer is an associate professor who teaches human sexuality in the School of Health and Human Performance at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. He knows he’s not going to hear from all of his undergraduate class of 450 when he teaches. The course is fraught with delicate subject matter that would be uncomfortable for anyone to discuss publicly.

Numer uses the Top Hat classroom engagement app in these classes so students can anonymously answer multiple choice or true/false questions via the app on their own personal devices, and to contribute to forum discussions. In his class, participation and classroom interactivity make up 20 percent of the final grade—so student engagement is a high priority.

But it’s not just awkward subject matter that makes class embarrassing for some—many students might not want to admit to their peers that they don’t follow or don’t understand your lessons. For this, you can use anonymity to let students ask for help in a safe way.

Humanities instructor Monika Semma does this with a ‘pass the mic’ session where she asks students to anonymously write down one thing that they don’t understand. She then compiles them onto a whiteboard. (Another way to do this is by using Top Hat’s question feature in class, and set all responses to display anonymously. Students can then upvote the entries they want explained.)

Semma then asks students to pass a mic around and explain a concept of their choice to their peers, with help if needed from the instructor; the concept is then erased from the board. “Students will have a tendency to pick the terms that they are most comfortable speaking about,” she explains. “Those left consistently untouched will give you a clear assessment of the subjects in which your class is struggling, and where comprehension is lacking. Once your class has narrowed down the list to just a few terms, you can switch gears into a more classic review session.”

3. Reach out to students who need help

It’s also important to use the data you’re collecting to identify any students who might be in danger of dropping out, particularly early on. Karen Quevillon, who lectures in creative and business writing, suggests a few ideas. For instance, asking some generalized study practice questions in your first class can give you a clue as to how prepared students are: “Have you ever used a library?” or “How do you prefer to work—alone or in a group?” Give them early low, or no-stakes formative assessments to see if they do the reading.

The big tell, however, is attendance. You can have a good idea of who is likely to stay enrolled or pass your course by looking at who is actually showing up to class: and there may be opportunities for you to help. “Become aware of and liaise with the others at your institution who have roles dedicated to supporting struggling students. They may even have the bigger picture when it comes to the students who show up in your classroom,” says Quevillon. Top Hat comes with secure attendance tracking built in—which makes it straightforward to track your students’ attendance for credit (or just for early warnings).

These sorts of interventions can work at any scale. Mark Milliron of Civitas Learning used data mining to find students in one college who had a high likelihood of dropping out. He explains: “[The college] sent them an email with the subject line: ‘We’re proud of you.’ In the body of this email it said: “Congratulations, you’ve done so well here. We’re looking forward to helping support your continued success… If you’re experiencing any issues, make sure to reach out and see if we can help.” There was a massive response to the email—because many students just needed to talk to somebody about whether they belonged at college at all.

How Top Hat’s Gradebook and Weekly Course Report can help

As well as tracking attendance and making in-class quizzes easy, Top Hat has a newly updated gradebook that can help monitor your students’ grades throughout the term. Tracking attendance and participation can help identify anybody falling behind. And the Weekly Course Report makes it easy for professors to act on students’ needs and insights—and allows you to easily reach out via email to students who need help.

Learn more about everything Top Hat can do for you.

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