I mentioned on Twitter that I had decided, after some reflection, to return to asking my students to write me ‘dear Liz’ letters. 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what they are, so here’s a blog post to do the job.
I picked up ‘dear Liz’ letters in the US, as a strategy that complemented the one minute papers I’ve written about before. When I came to Birmingham, however, I had a rude awakening – students in my ancient religion course responded pretty well to one minute papers, but absolutely hated the ‘dear Liz’ letter, and were happy to tell me so! So I dropped them, and moved on. Fast forward to this year, when I’m teaching far more language than I usually do. I wrote in that post that I wanted to use one minute papers to get a clear grasp of grammar that was causing problems. However, despite good intentions and introducing them at the start of the year, I haven’t actually used one minute papers. At all. They don’t seem helpful – my classes are such small groups that I’m engaging with each student heavily in each class session, and it’s easy to flag up areas of confusion through obvious problems of translation and comprehension. I don’t need one minute papers to tell me what I already know. Equally, the Euripides course doesn’t encourage me to use one minute papers either – my students are in single numbers, meaning that debate and questions flow comfortably. If anything the CIQ would have been a better fit here. However, while I feel I have quite a good handle on how individual classes are going, I don’t have any way to take the temperature of the course more broadly. As I’ve got to know the students quite well, I now think they’ll respond well to this reflective assignment.
The rubric that I have sent them over e-mail looks something like this:
Now we are nearing the end of term, I want to give you an opportunity to share your thoughts and feelings about the course so far with me. The only feedback I get from you otherwise about your perceptions of the course is the end of year module questionnaire, and that isn’t very much help for making changes that benefit you now. By taking the time to complete this exercise, you will help me adapt next term’s teaching if necessary, but will also benefit from reviewing your own learning over the course of term and how you have progressed.
The exercise: write a ‘dear Liz’ letter to me. In your letter, include answers to the following questions:
- What are you enjoying about the class?
- What are you finding most rewarding about the class? Alternatively, what are you finding most challenging about this class? (You cannot say ‘everything’.)
- Do you think your understanding of the material is improving? Why or why not?
- Which primary sources have you found most interesting and why?
- Which secondary readings have been most helpful to you and why?
- What are you struggling with? What should we pay more attention to as a class?
Your letter can be as long or as short as you need it to be. You may write it by hand, in an e-mail or in a Word document. Please make sure it reaches me by the last Friday of term, in hard or electronic copy.
When setting your own questions, remember that they should focus firmly on the student’s experience and engagement with the material, and the course content. This should cut down the risk of a student writing something inappropriate about the instructor – this is an extreme example, but we’ve all heard the horror stories. It also invites the student to consider their own learning process as something they are actively involved in and can track rather than something they passively absorb from the instructor. It’s also worth mentioning that some students take the prompts and run with them, telling you far more about the course than you’ve asked – this is usually extremely productive for both you and the student.
Of course, if you are going to run this assessment, you have to follow through. My goal is to be able to say what changes I’m going to make to my next term’s teaching as a result of the feedback – or indeed to say I’m not making any changes, and know that’s OK. What I have also done in the past is write back individual letters to each student, addressing the issues that they raised – for instance, giving pedagogical explanations for activities students say they don’t like, responding to critique, explaining why challenging things are challenging, offering strategies that might help the student move forward. Students were quite surprised to get answers aimed specifically at them and their concerns, which only reinforces why it’s worth doing if you can.
When I gave my potted explanation on Twitter, Jane Draycott asked whether the loss of anonymity was a problem, and if you got honest responses from students. I can only speak from my limited experience, but I’ve never found that this format has got in the way of candour – I’ve received some very honest and raw responses about problems students are experiencing, their likes and dislikes about assignments, and questions they have about how things will progress for the rest of the course. Of course, that was in the US context, and my only previous experience of doing this in the UK was not a positive one. However, given the very different nature of the courses I’m trying it with this time around, I’m optimistic that there will be a better result.