Monday, September 17, 2007

Using Minute Papers to Assess Student Understanding Mid-Semester

By Hillary Burgess, Adjunct Professor, Rutgers School of Law

Law students often complain that the only way they know whether or not they understand the material is by their final grade.  Similarly, as faculty, we face frustration that “we know we discussed this topic ad nauseam,” so why didn’t the students get it right on the exam? 

When I first started teaching, I used “minute papers” to get feedback from students throughout the semester.  In class, I distribute a handout that has 3-5 questions on it.  The questions were sometimes topical (explain such and such a concept that we learned last time), meta-topical (explain what you still don’t understand about such and such a topic), or administrative (what about the lectures is/is not working for you).  I give the students 3-5 minutes to write the papers.  I’ve found this method allows me to evaluate how well I’ve taught the ideas we’ve discussed as well as what the students like and don’t like about the means to get there and the means of evaluation.

While minute papers don’t provide direct feedback to the class, I do summarize the results for the students, which gives students feedback relative to the rest of the class.  Summarizing the results lets students who are not getting key concepts become aware that they are one of a few.  I always welcome these students to my office hours (or since I’m currently an adjunct, to email or call me) for additional guidance.  I’ve found those students tend to feel supported whether or not they take me up on the invitation.  I’ve also found that summarizing the results can reduce the impact that one disgruntled student can have by letting him or her know indirectly (provided its true) that most of the students are excited about whatever that student is disgruntled about.  If many students are disgruntled about a particular aspect of the course, I can address the issue directly and explain its pedagogical soundness or, more likely, come up with an alternate pedagogically sound solution.   

I used these papers more when I was starting out as an adjunct because I wanted to make sure that what I thought was good teaching was actually reaching the students.  In my undergraduate courses, I have to admit, I give so many tests and papers (usually one or the other every other week) and have so much one-on-one contact with students, that students give and receive all the feedback they want. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have small enough classes that I’ve been able to continue my undergraduate school’s philosophy that “every class is a writing class, regardless of the topic” in both my undergraduate and law school classes.  However, in my law class, I’ve found that students become used to the “no work until finals week,” and despite that they complain that they don’t get feedback mid-semester, some of them will complain about mid-semester assignments!  Minute papers might be the best solution to this dichotomous problem – it allows me to communicate with each student while taking very little of their time (and gives me less to grade). 

In any case, I wanted to share (and remind) you about this idea as I recently reminded myself about it.  I welcome comments and feedback.  Prof@hillaryburgess.com.

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