Three Things I Did in Class Last Quarter (That Students Liked)

I have been teaching in UCSC for two years now. I have been blessed with positive student reviews for my classes. But what I like more are the wonderful comments and advice that I get from students; ways to help make my teaching better and make the students’ experience in the class better.


In the previous quarter, I have been thinking about implementing some of the ideas that were suggested by students in prior courses. It turned out to be a success! In fact, reading the course reviews of the previous quarter, many students acknowledged these changes and that they liked it. As a practice of self-reflection and getting feedback from a broader audience, I list these changes here. I would love to hear if you have implemented some of these techniques, or think that some of them might have flaws that outweigh the benefit.

1. Reducing students’ stress by always starting the lecture with a dialogue.

The course I teach the most is the Operating Systems and principles of software design course, which is regarded by many students in our department to be the most stressful course in the program. The reason for this being that we introduce the students to concepts about complexity, large-scale software, concurrency, and the OS kernel as well as having assignments where students hack an operating system kernel. This — as you can imagine — is a daunting list of topics for students to cover in one course.

I was aware that the requirements of the course increase students’ stress. This is something that I wanted to change. And I have been doing a various set of techniques to accomplish this, but the thing that I felt had the most impact with relatively small effort is the following: always start the lecture with an open question and answer session. Students can just ask about anything. Whether it is about the material, the coming exams, their programming assignments, or the general logistics of the course. Nothing was off limit and I did not rush answering any questions. Sometimes, this took a significant amount of time (i.e., the lecture before and after the midterm 🙂 — but the outcome is definitely worth it.

I have noticed that doing this approach, I have noticed more students more comfortable to come to my office hours and approach me after the lecture. And a number of students suffering from anxiety-related illnesses have expressed to me that this has made them more relaxed and receptive during lectures. In addition to these benefits to the students, I felt more connected with students concerns and their priorities in each lecture. For example, at one lecture I noticed many students asking about the high-level ideas of the programming assignments which indicated that the intuition of the assignment was not presented clearly. I took the opportunity to integrate the assignment in the examples I used in the class and many of the students high-level questions were resolved.

2. Increasing participation by *NEVER* saying that an answer is incorrect.

Student participation is very important. It helps students be engaged and clarify points that are not delivered well in the lecture. And it is also a gauge to the instructor to know that the pace of the lecture is not too fast for students. This is a point that I wanted to improve from my previous classes where only around 10 students would participate actively in lectures. I tried being positive and encouraging to students questions in prior courses, but I only noticed small improvement in participation.

What really worked in increasing student participating significantly was an extreme solution — one that I was hesitant about but wanted to try out and explore. This solution is to *never* say that an answer is incorrect. If I receive an answer from a student, I try to come up with the most positive spin to the answer. Sometimes, this can be that the first part of the answer is correct. Sometimes, the answer can be viewed as a step to the complete answer. For example, an incorrect answer can be presented as a correct answer that can be improved. I would validate the answer, describe that it would work in certain cases, and THEN I would mention that there are some corner cases that might not work, and poll students for further participation.

When I started this solution, I was worried that students would be confused by some answers and my reaction to them. Indeed, one student in the first week even told me that he wishes that I would just say that an answer is wrong! However, by the second week, I have noticed that this started to become effective. More students started participating. And many have become comfortable sharing answers that are not necessarily correct/complete and that they would acknowledge this during their participation (For example, “the answer is so and so but I am not sure what will happen in [some corner case]”).

This has been especially wonderful for the class I teach because we teach them software design which is an iterative process. And this method has helped students practice this in each lecture!

3. Doing a midterm evaluation.

The update to the class that was liked and mentioned the most in students evaluation is doing a midterm evaluation. The final “official” evaluation that is done through the university is performed at the end of the quarter and only visible to the instructor after the course is done. This makes the students suggestions useful only to future classes (which might be one reason why participation in these evaluations can be higher.)

In this quarter, I did a midterm evaluation where in the fifth week I sent out a survey to students where they can express their comments and requests about the class anonymously. I received many wonderful comments and requests and a good number of students participated. For example, students pointed out that the assignments were a bit confusing. Hearing about this concern, I started running an assignment-clarity committee that consists of a handful of students in the class that would help me refine the assignment write-up before it is released. (this also had the side-effect that these students would clarify the assignment to other students in discussion sections and on piazza.)

This gave me the opportunity to improve the course before it ends, helped the students feel that they are heard and that the instructor is concerned about their learning process. These, I believe, has other side-effects to make students feel that I am on their side, reducing their stress, and increase their engagement.

Let me know what you think about these changes and whether you have other ways to improve the students experience!

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