Reimagining Regular and Substantive Interaction

Feedback that matters.


September 15, 2016

For many years, I taught a U.S. history survey course with 592 students a semester – with no discussion sections and only a high stakes midterm and final exam that consisted largely of multiple-choice questions.

Too many introductory courses are similar to the one that I once taught. These are, in many respects, little more than non-interactive correspondence or distance education classes.

Federal financial aid rules require “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors in distance education programs.  But it is not clear to me that many large “face-to-face” lecture courses meet that standard.

My colleague Marni Baker Stein – who should certainly be at the top of any list of higher education’s top academic innovators – has argued to the U.S. Department of Education and others that “regular and substantive interaction” needs to be understood in terms of feedback.

Timely substantive feedback is central to learning.  Feedback is the mechanism through which students learn about accuracy and expectations about quality. At its best, feedback is formative and developmental, helping a student learn how to grow, and engaged, by taking a student’s ideas seriously and critically. The ultimate goal is to build a student’s capacity for self-assessment.

Feedback can, of course, take many forms.  It can be judgmental or constructive, positive or negative, evaluative or informational, formative or summative, specific or general, subjective or standards-based.  It can target an individual student or at a class, be presented orally or in writing, and focus on a small number of points or many points.

The most basic – and least informative – form of feedback is a response that can be summed up in a single word: True, false, right, wrong, interesting, awkward, or smart.  Such feedback is too truncated to be useful.

Nearly as basic is a grade.  In theory, a grade is an objective evaluation of a student’s performance; but in the absence of a clear rubric, a grade can be subjective, uncommunicative, and vague. 

Other forms of feedback, which can be much more helpful, are:

▪     Strengths-and-weaknesses focused:  Comments that adopt this approach are oriented toward improving the students’ work.

▪     Criterion-referenced: These comments are linked to clearly defined standards or learning objectives.

▪     Process-oriented:  Comments that examine a student’s methodological and interpretive approaches and how these might be strengthened.

I recently developed an asynchronous, online, activity-driven version of a U.S. history survey course, which has no high-stakes tests at all. There are also no lectures (although there are brief videos and substantial amounts of text arranged in a chronological and thematic sequence).

The course’s activities are self-directed and, to a certain extent, self-paced, and include:

How do we know? Students examine the sources and methods historians use to determine the size of the New World population in 1492, the number of Africans forcibly transported during the slave trade, or the number of deaths during the U.S. Civil War.

Hidden history: Students explore the backstory behind Zombies and various icons that have come to symbolize the United States.

History through sight and sound: Students use art, film, photography, and song as windows into historical events and the way that these are remembered.

History through unconventional sources: Students use gravestones, etymology, fashion, hairstyles, naming patterns, and toys to understand shifts in values and demographics.

History’s mysteries: Students examine primary sources to examine the fate of the colonists at Roanoke and to determine whether Alexander Hamilton intentionally avoided shooting Aaron Burr.

Deciphering maps: Students “geovisualize” social phenomena, such as lynchings, and explore the political uses of maps, including those used to establish the boundaries of Texas.

The use and abuse of history in policy debates: Students explore the lessons and implications of history for contemporary debates over immigration.

Making historical judgments:  Students review the history of a controversy and develop their own stance.  Examples, include whether the “Star-Spangled Banner” should be abandoned as the national anthem and whether the annexation of Hawaii was just.

My history is America’s history: Students examine how their family’s history intersects with broader developments and themes in U.S. history.

Perceptions of the Other and the Future: Students analyze popular imaginings and visualizations of what other beings or the future might look like.

What if?  Students look at historical analogies to better understand what might have happened had the American patriots lost the Revolution or Lincoln not been assassinated.

The course’s learning objectives are three-fold: To foster historical thinking (that is, the ability to think dynamically, longitudinally, and diachronically), to introduce students to historical methods (to formulate meaningful historical questions and answer these through the analysis of primary source evidence), and to help students connect past and present.

In this course, the regular and substantive interaction with students consists largely of written feedback on student writing (supplemented with e-discussion sessions and e-office hours).

In its current iteration, I personally respond to student writing, but I can imagine alternate ways of providing feedback in a scaled version of the course: Through a teaching assistant, an instructional facilitator, a grader, or peers or near peers, and, in certain instances, automated responses.

Does this approach involve any less regular and substantive interaction than in my large lecture class? Of course not.

My take-away is simple: We need to think rigorously about what we mean by regular and substantive interaction and apply this not only to online courses but to face-to-face instruction as well.

We need to ask: Are students receiving regular and meaningful feedback appropriate to the course’s learning objectives.  In my U.S. history course, the key question is whether students are receiving the kinds of input that will help them develop their writing, analytical, and higher-order thinking skills as well as their ability to think historically, weigh evidence, critically analyze primary sources, pose historical questions, and connect past and present in a nuanced manner.

Feedback, in my view, lies at the heart of education.  Without substantial, timely, targeted feedback, education is nothing more than content delivery.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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