Why do an FCR? The costs are minimal, the pay-off huge!

Imagine you’re teaching a class where things are not going as well as you hoped. Maybe the energy in the room is lagging. Maybe students don’t seem to be understanding your assignments. Maybe you’ve even asked for their feedback, but you’re met with blank faces, silence, and an empty email inbox. You know something is not quite right, but you can’t figure out what it is.

For me, when I am faced with such a conundrum, I turn to the Center for Teaching and, more specifically, to the Facilitated Course Reflections (FCR) they offer at the middle of every semester. The FCR program (previously known as the Mid-Semester Group Analysis or MSGA program) connects faculty with a trained facilitator, also a Sewanee faculty member, who will come to the classroom and solicit feedback from students at mid-semester.

Some may balk at the idea of voluntarily allowing an outside person into their classroom. Why would we invite observations, outside of tenure and promotion requirements? Certainly, everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to welcoming observers in the classroom. But for me, the costs of conducting an FCR are miniscule and the pay-off enormous.

First, the costs. Observation can be nerve-racking for even the most seasoned educator, and there’s a certain amount of anxiety that comes along with it. It also takes time to plan an FCR, fit it into your course schedule, and participate in a debrief with the facilitator. In my experience, that’s about where the costs end.

Now, the benefits. Yes, having an outside observer in your classroom can be nerve-racking, but when a facilitator who is not the course instructor solicits feedbacks, my sense is students are more forthcoming about both their experience of the course and the work they are doing for the course. (I particularly appreciate how much the FCR focuses on asking students what they personally do to help and hinder their learning in the course, in addition to the usual questions about how the course and assignments are structured.) Because the facilitator has no interest in evaluating the faculty member, that takes pressure off the observation and the debriefs between facilitator and faculty member feel like skills-sharing and problem-solving conversations. I also appreciate the opportunity to brainstorm about teaching with faculty members outside my departments and areas of research. While I may teach rather different courses from, say, a neuroscientist or a theologian, I benefit from the outside perspective and fresh set of eyes that educators in fields like these can offer.

Finally, while it may take time to plan and schedule an FCR, I always feel that it takes about the same amount of time as executing my own feedback collection and the time spent on the FCR is more productive and helpful for my pedagogy. Instead of spending my time writing surveys, cajoling students into taking them, and then wading through and synthesizing their responses, participating in an FCR means someone else writes the questions for students, someone else collects the feedback, and someone else synthesizes all those comments into a big picture view of the class for me (thank you to the facilitators I’ve worked with!). I can then spend my time having substantive conversations about my classroom and planning what changes I can make for the second half of term.

So, bringing an FCR facilitator into your classroom can be a bit intimidating. But the pay-off is a clearer picture of what your students are putting into and getting out of your course and the opportunity to collaborate with a colleague on how to make your course work better. After participating in FCRs, I am able to explain to my students more clearly why I make the pedagogical choices I make and offer tweaks and changes that foster a more inclusive classroom and more effective teaching in the second half of term. The bottom line? FCRs make me a better teacher.

Molly Brookfield, History and Women’s and Gender Studies