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Services of the CFT: Small Group Analyses

This article was originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, The Teaching Forum.

By Darlene Panvini, Assistant Director

It’s the middle of the semester and the excitement of a new group of students or a new course wanes as the day-to-day work of teaching and learning ensues. Perhaps you wonder if students really understand what you are saying. Do they find the format of the course or a particular teaching technique helpful to their learning? What are their comments regarding the homework, papers, or exams?

While there are a variety of ways of getting answers to these questions during the semester, one particularly helpful tool is the Student Small Group Analysis (SGA) conducted by consultants at the Center for Teaching. Both experienced and new instructors-faculty as well as TAs-find this midterm analysis useful for collecting information. Some instructors have an SGA done every semester they teach, noting that each group of students learns in a different way. Other instructors have an SGA done the first semester they teach a new course, while some choose to have them conducted periodically as they feel the need arises.

How does the SGA work? Instructors call the Center for Teaching and arrange for a consultant to visit the class. Typically, SGAs are done the last twenty minutes of lecture or discussion classes and the first twenty minutes of lab sections. After the instructor leaves the room, the consultant divides the class into small groups to complete a brief, open-ended questionnaire. Students are assured that their identity, either as a group or as individuals, will remain anonymous. The four questions on the handout are:

  • What are the primary teaching strengths of the instructor?
  • What are the primary weaknesses of the instruction? Please offer suggestions for improvement.
  • Are the instructor’s teaching techniques helping you learn the material? Why or why not?
  • Any comments on the course? [When arranging the SGA, instructors can request that other questions be asked also.]

After about eight minutes, the consultant then asks each group to share its responses and engages with students in a ten-minute discussion, asking for examples and probing for more details. The consultant takes notes and collects the questionnaires at the end of the discussion. The consultant writes up a report, typically 1-2 pages, summarizing and quoting from the students. During the ensuing consultation, the instructor receives a copy of the report and engages in discussion with the consultant to interpret and analyze the students’ comments. They typically brainstorm ways of incorporating useful comments into the course.

After completing an SGA, instructors often find a brief discussion with the students to be helpful. Instructors can thank students for the feedback, spell out any changes that they may make as a result of the SGA, and/or explain their rationale for not incorporating some of the students’ comments.

As a formative rather than summative assessment, the SGA’s purpose is to assist instructors in “taking the pulse of the class” at mid-semester. Some instructors find this process reinvigorates their thinking about how the class is going, how teaching techniques are effectively being used to promote student learning, and whether or not other approaches would enhance the learning environment. Therefore, the SGA comments are confidential and not shared with anyone other than the instructor. Nor are they included as part of a teaching dossier for faculty or TA reviews or reappointments.

To schedule an SGA or get more information, call the Center for Teaching at 322-7290. As this is the CFT’s most requested service, call early in the semester to ensure scheduling the time you want.