Know learning states and learning obstacles before the exam

Questions

How do I know before the exam that the students have not understood something?

How do I determine early on whether the event concept is coherent?

Every teacher thinks about how to make the material as accessible as possible to the students. It can be all the more frustrating if the students seem to have understood little or nothing of the elaborately prepared content at the end. Whether a content is well prepared can never be answered in a general way: What is comprehensible to the scientist who is experienced in the field does not necessarily mean it is comprehensible to the novice. Neurobiology and pedagogy agree on two points here: On the one hand, a learner’s ability to actively process the content presented to him or her is highly dependent on his or her prior knowledge. On the other hand, everyone learns in his or her own way and assembles knowledge building blocks to form a personal construct of knowledge and understanding (in pedagogy, this is referred to as “constructivism”). Accordingly, one must abandon the idea that the material enters the students’ heads in the way it is taught. Although it can be assumed that it is very specific content in a very specific presentation that triggers the desired learning processes, one cannot be sure of this for the individual case. Only the examination then provides information about whether the students were able to achieve the learning objectives. If the learning processes have not led to the desired results, it is too late for the students concerned. To solve this problem, it is important to introduce feedback loops already during the semester (“formative feedback”). Through them, it is possible to understand where students are in their learning process. It is then possible to adjust the course while it is still in progress and to better support the students’ learning processes by making minor adjustments, such as brief repetitions or explanations based on examples. The most important aspect is the subject of the feedback: What do you want to ask the students about? Because the feedback can relate to different aspects of teaching:

  • Prerequisites: What prior knowledge do students have in the subject area?
  • The teaching/learning process: what interferes with or enhances the student learning process in the specific event?
  • Learning outcomes: What was understood and what content was found to be important?

In addition, you can ask yourself in advance at which points you most likely expect students to have difficulties – e.g., based on subject didactic research or your own experiences – and then specifically query them. Finally, feedback processes are particularly important at the points where these difficulties occur. Another tip: Feedback can also be obtained usefully with the help of clickers, smartphones or via Stud.IP (online platform, clicker & peer instruction). For most of the methods mentioned here, online variants are also conceivable. However, the response rate may be lower than if the tasks are worked on directly in the course. Nevertheless, especially in a lecture or seminar with a well-received learning platform, it makes sense to also obtain feedback, for example, via the online forum (possible in Stud.IP).

  1. The following method descriptions provide information on how to collect feedback on the different aspects. Two points are important for handling the survey data: It must be made transparent that it is a feedback process and not, for example, part of the exam. This helps students to assess the process and improves the quality of the feedback.
  2. There must be some form of timely response to the results. This shows students that their feedback is taken seriously and encourages them to continue to take responsibility for shaping the teaching/learning process.

Overall, the use of feedback methods encourages learners to reflect on what promotes or hinders their personal learning. This helps students to better assess themselves and to take on a stronger role of co-responsibility for their learning process.

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