What are your students thinking?

I remember the first day of the first class I taught like it was yesterday. It was a seminar on the economics of aging and I started by giving my six students1 a tour of the upcoming semester and then showed long-term trends in life expectancy, retirement behavior, and old age benefits around the world. I closed by presenting and critiquing a couple simple economic models of retirement. When I got home, my wife asked how it went. I paused and said “I have absolutely no idea!” As a student, it was always obvious whether a class had gone well, but as an instructor I was shocked to find that it can be a complete mystery.

I’ve learned over the years how to read students’ faces better, and once you get to know them, they are much more likely to share their thoughts on the class. You don’t need to do much more than pay attention and talk to them during and after a seminar. In a large lecture, I feel like I’m back to square one. Students are far more likely to just sit back and take it in. And in my 150 seat classroom, many of those students are physically pretty far away.

These are a few strategies I’ve tried in my first two weeks:

Talk to them during problem breaks. Once or twice per class, my students break into small groups to solve or discuss problems for 5-10 minutes. While they work, I wander around seeing how they’re doing. It becomes very clear very quickly if they have absorbed what I’ve been teaching.

Ask questions they can answer by raising their hands. Hands are a poor man’s clickers2–You can immediately get answers from everyone to multiple choice questions like “Who thinks this change in strategy will increase expected profits of the firm?” or “Who thinks it will decrease profits?” or “Who thinks they will stay the same?” or even “Who has no idea?”

Stick around after class. I’m happy to talk to anyone that has questions or comments after class. I even encourage it during lecture. On Wednesday one of the problems ended with a rather messy mathematical expression. I told them there was a good trick to computing it that I’d show anyone who was interested after class. Sure enough, it brought a few mathy students out of the woodwork. I also said I would prove a few of the theorems that I’d presented, but no one took me up on that offer.

Survey them. Google Forms are so easy to set up and distribute that I find myself surveying them all the time. Sometimes I gather data to analyze in class, but I also ask them about their experiences with section, with problem sets, and the class in general. ICT Evangelist Mark Anderson has also had success using Google Forms to get student feedback during the term.

Go to lunch with them. I’m planning to meet eight different students at one of the dining halls for lunch once a week, and we had our first lunch right before Wednesday’s class. It was a great way to learn more about their backgrounds and interests and how they are finding the class thus far. It also gives me a chance to explain why I do some things they might find annoying (like scheduling most discussion sections right after the problem sets are due). This is just one of many ideas I’ve taken from Michael Koelle’s fantastic presentation last spring on how he teaches large lecture classes in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

When you’re teaching the same class for the nth time, it’s useful to get feedback from students as each crop of students is different and students often have great ideas for improving even the most polished class. However, when you’re teaching a class for the first time, getting student feedback early and often is absolutely critical so you have a chance to repair the inevitable broken bits.


  1. Just six students enrolled because students at Yale don’t like to take risks with new faculty teaching something that might be boring. Once I had some decent student evaluations on record, a lot more students turned up. 

  2. At some point I’m hoping to have enough time to start using real clickers.