Taking the Pulse of a Class

New app seeks to shake up student ratings of instruction by promoting open-ended feedback in the moment, throughout the semester, so that the feedback becomes more constructive than punitive.

February 20, 2018
 
ClassPulse

Even defenders of student evaluations of teaching admit they’re flawed. A top contention is that students are almost always asked to evaluate a professor at the end of a course, when they no longer have a personal incentive to help that instructor teach better.

Enter ClassPulse. Part of a growing market of products that allow students to offer anonymous, instantaneous feedback on instruction, ClassPulse is a free application students and professors download to their phones. From there, students can post comments or questions visible to everyone in the class. Professors can gauge the significance of each post by the number of supporting votes it gets from other students. So a comment with one vote might not mean much. But a comment with 25 votes is probably representative of students’ concerns, depending on class size.

Instructors can also post comments or questions or request targeted feedback via the platform’s “polls” function. “Did you find today’s exercise useful?” a professor might ask, for example, or “Rate the pace of my lectures: too slow, too fast, just right.”

Rather than students using their phones throughout class -- to the point of distraction -- ClassPulse proposes that students use the app between classes or at key moments while meeting.

Claudia Recchi, a recent graduate of Georgetown University, founded ClassPulse last year and has built a following based on outreach to individual instructors and word-of-mouth recommendations. Instructors nationwide now use the platform, she said, with particular interest among non-tenure-track professors. That makes sense, given that these professors are often rehired, or not, based largely on student feedback.

“These people care about their teaching effectiveness not only because they care about students but because their jobs are on the line,” Recchi said, noting that faculty developers and teaching center staffers also have reached out to her personally about ClassPulse.

Recchi, who graduated in 2017 with degrees in operations and information management and Chinese, said ClassPulse was informed by her own experiences as an undergraduate.

“As a student you’re always aware that course evaluations are flawed,” she said. “When the semester comes to an end, you can’t be bothered to fill them out, or you’re checking boxes or writing super-generic comments.”

Recchi recalled one professor in particular who was a “great guy” but who walked through examples too quickly and “had a hard time getting things across” to students. At the end of the semester, the professor got terrible evaluations, Recchi said, and wasn’t rehired.

A second professor of finance, meanwhile, she said, asked students to offer feedback anonymously on his course via a Tumblr page.

“I though that was super useful and wished I had it in all my classes,” Recchi recalled.

Patrick Johnson, an assistant teaching professor of physics at Georgetown, uses ClassPulse in his large, lecture-style courses. Because ClassPulse is only as effective as the share of students using it is large, Johnson said he asks students to take out their phones and download the app at the beginning of the semester.

“The fact that students have their phones with them everywhere they go means this is super easy for them to do,” he said. “So that barrier to providing feedback is lower. And every professor knows that it’s hard to get 60 percent of students to fill out course evaluations -- the best I’ve ever done is in the 70s or 80 percent, and that’s with constant pestering.”

Because ClassPulse is anonymous, Johnson said he doesn’t know if a dedicated group is using the app on a regular basis or if different students are using it all the time. Either way, he said, a critical mass is using it, to everyone’s benefit.

Asked if ClassPulse means more work, in that he now has to consult the app and answer student emails, Johnson said he hadn’t studied the issue. But he guessed that ClassPulse eliminated at least some of the monotonous, time-consuming work that is answering multiple student emails about the same questions. And ClassPulse offers anonymity that some students crave, he said, noting that he’s previously received comments from students who create accounts like “concernedphysicsstudent@gmail.com.”

To that point, Johnson said he’d prefer that students approach him directly with questions, comments or criticism than use any platform. But as he himself was intimidated by his own professors as an undergraduate, he said, he gets it.

Johnson said he still pays close attention to students’ narrative comments in his formal course evaluations, but that ClassPulse is a way to get that feedback in a more timely manner so that it’s “actionable.” Sometimes, that means telling students that he’ll consider their suggestions as policy changes for the next semester, he said. But just as often it means answering questions or making small changes that might help students now.

Recchi said that ClassPulse is not currently seeking to replace student evaluations of teaching, but rather complement them. A small ClassPulse study involving 12 faculty members, for example, demonstrated that professors who used the app over a semester saw a 20-percentage-point increase in their overall teaching ratings, she said.

Going forward, ClassPulse hopes to add more sophisticated analytics so that professors can track the impact of their interaction with students on their teaching. Recchi’s eventual plan is to sell ClassPulse to institutions so that they can offer access to it to all their professors. The platform seeks to remain instructor centered, not administrator or ratings centered, however, she said.

Beyond the fact that traditional student evaluations of teaching are completed after the fact, they’re also often criticized for conveying students’ bias against professors -- especially those who aren’t white men. Recchi said that when students give feedback in the moment, instead of at the end of a course, it tends to be much more targeted and objective: a professor talked too fast on this day or this particular quiz was too difficult, for example.

“If you’re looking back on a course, you’re going to give very general impressions,” she said. “It’s very easy for biases to creep in that way.”

The IDEA system is another tool for making student feedback more meaningful, including through instant responses; IDEA’s instant tool can be delivered to students at any time throughout the semester, but it currently includes seven set questions instead of open-ended feedback.

Ken Ryalls, IDEA’s president, said that while ClassPulse’s open design offers an “opportunity for more flexibility,” pre-designed questions “can have advantages of reliability and validity, and focusing on things that really matter to the instructor.”

While both systems have their benefits and drawbacks, he said, classrooms “are not democracies, and opening up feedback on any subject that allows students to anonymously give thumbs-ups to seems risky to the instructor's control of the class.” Somewhat similarly, Ryalls said he was skeptical about instant feedback’s potential to attenuate student biases. While some students might vote down, ignore or otherwise drown out biased perspectives, he said, other students might join in.

Ryalls said that instant feedback during the semester can be a bridge to well-designed end-of-course evaluations, and that in a "perfect world" they’d both always exist.

“I love to talk about feedback as fostering an environment of co-learning, where the instructor and student truly feel that they're working together to get better,” he added. “More feedback would probably lead to more co-learning, provided the feedback is of some quality.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top