Immediate Student Feedback Leads to More Agile, Effective Teaching

By Kristi DePaul

I’ve often wondered what it’d be like to go through life with the perspective of a risk analyst—to be constantly calculating possibilities and costs of peril, and weighing one’s options accordingly. When I (unintentionally) climbed a Norwegian fjord one summer, the likelihood of spraining my ankle or falling from the steep hillside were never far from my mind. (All went well in this particular scenario, thankfully.)

Just like individuals, companies must also manage risks. They stand to gain or lose a lot based upon the decisions they make. Day in and day out, strategic and operational choices can greatly impact the trajectories of both start-ups and global corporations alike.

In her academic and professional life, such uncertainty has been Professor Nan Yang’s focus. Her research addresses fundamental risk factors in general supply chains—including yield uncertainty, lead-time uncertainty, cost uncertainty and demand uncertainty.

As Yang was one of ForClass’ earliest adopters, I was curious as to why she chose this technology at such an early stage.

Taking a Calculated Edtech Risk

Yang had met with ForClass’ co-founder, Professor Gad Allon, at an operations management conference in late 2014. It was something of a reunion; the two were classmates in their Ph.D. program at Columbia and, as she puts it, ‘academic siblings.’

“Gad is a great researcher and really energetic teacher. When we chatted, he explained to me why he designed ForClass—the rationale behind it and the goal. It all makes sense, because it’s from a professor who not only teaches in the classroom but does it really well. With this tool, he has put a lot of thought and effort into how to do it better—how to accomplish things in different ways and how to improve upon current methods. I was very excited and wanted very much to try it out.”

In January 2015, she put her trust in ForClass, using it in her undergraduate and graduate operations courses at Olin Business School in Washington University in St. Louis.

She was one of the pioneers of the platform, although she describes herself as ‘not extremely tech savvy.’

“With regard to academic technology, I often find that I’m falling behind with it. It’s a field that moves so fast and I don’t have time to catch up. So when I get emails from different software companies asking me to try their product, I ignore them.”

What made a key difference with ForClass isn’t just that she knew Gad Allon personally; it’s that an award-winning professor was behind the product itself.

“When I use ForClass, I’m amazed by how much thought has been put into the design. It’s different from commercial education software because it was designed by a professor who actually taught courses. He knows the challenges, and he directly addresses them with features—keeping faculty and students’ needs in mind.”

Sign up now to try ForClass today, or learn more through a demo with co-founder Prof. Gad Allon.


Seizing Teachable Moments

Yang noted that students also like ForClass because their mistakes can be explained in real time, which means they’re more likely to remember what they did incorrectly–and how to remedy it.

She surveyed her students to find out what they thought. A sampling of their comments:

  • “ForClass helps me to focus.”
  • “I think it is good practice and application of the material.”
  • “It helps in seeing where I stand in comparison to others in understanding.”
  • “ForClass allows for immediate feedback and discussion.”
  • “Using the information right away allows me to understand the material better and see what I’m not getting.”
  • “ForClass is helpful in participation and encouraging effort on in‐class problems. It’s also nice to be able to see answers from other students.”

Yang feels that the platform frees up time for students who would otherwise linger after a lecture to ask unresolved questions.

“I actually think it helps them to save time after class,” she said. “They’re able to grasp most of the concepts and ideas clearly in class.” 

Professors are also no strangers, of course, to having expert blind spots. Those who have attained Yang’s level of understanding on a complex subject are sometimes unable to see that the pace and level at which they’re teaching is eluding students’ capabilities.

“I used to teach where I liked to teach, but now with ForClass’ immediate feedback, I see where the students need me to teach — at the right level and pace.”

“Sometimes, this means I might move slower, but afterwards, students tell me they’ve learned a lot. Prior to this, I simply didn’t get that kind of feedback. I taught faster, but they learned less. As an educator, I’m excited about the material, but have to keep in mind that this isn’t one-sided. I now can see what concepts my students are missing, and what they’ve mastered perfectly. That’s the thing I love about ForClass: real-time feedback.”

Filling Seats, Motivating Students

Yang notes that since she began using ForClass, her class attendance has improved because, as she explains it, “students feel that they’re getting more out of the class, so they voluntarily show up more often.”

This is especially true in her evening class, where participation only counts for 5% of the grade. Many in this mixed-level course of undergrad and professional MBA students work fulltime, so it’s important for them to grasp the material in an efficient way. Those students aren’t motivated by a grading component; it’s the learning experience that drives them to show up and participate.

“This is a much better system for two-way communication. It has helped me to read their minds,” Yang admitted, chuckling. “On a serious note, I’m now thinking about the most effective questions to ask for my students. This is a learning process for me, too!”

Yang uses questions of different levels. The more involved questions are included in homework assignments, while others that can serve as a ‘quick check’ on a concept are easily done in class. Yang explains that “you know immediately if they ‘get it’ or not.”

She adjusts the difficulty level according to students’ responses, and specifically looks for those questions that will elicit more robust in-class discussion. The questions themselves aren’t new—she’s been using them in her lessons for years—but unlike previous years, she now knows how her students find the exercises.

“After one year of using ForClass, I have a much better idea of how my in-class exercises are being received. Instead of simply having the quickest student answering questions, I’ll wait until at least a quarter of the class responds and then I’ll open up the discussion.”

Confident, Informed Teaching

How does ForClass impact Yang’s teaching?

“Today, I speak to my students with confidence. I’m not taking up class time to ask 10 students; that approach quickly becomes repetitive and boring and you don’t achieve the desired end result in terms of learning. Instead, I immediately see and understand where I need to drive the discussion to get there.” 

But she believes that the platform has even broader implications for her as a faculty member.

“Every minute I spend with ForClass has a long-term impact on my teaching. I’m still learning and improving as a professor. The product helps my teaching.”

Yang also feels that ForClass addresses a critical problem for many professors: assessing students’ understanding in real time.

It’s a very important missing link in classroom: professors’ understanding of students’ overall understanding of material. What used to be a push system, now is a pull system, with me learning what students know, and catering to their needs. Teaching isn’t about what I know and want you to learn—it’s about where you are and how you can learn the best.”

Dr. Nan Yang is an assistant professor of operations and manufacturing management in Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.