Engaging students in a course postmortem dialogue

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Alfred GuzzettiAlfred Guzzetti, Osgood Hooker Professor of Visual Arts, dedicates the final session of
VES 52R: Introduction to Non-Fiction Videomaking—where students spend the term creating one nonfiction film on a subject of their choosing—to a class-wide postmortem discussion about all course elements.

The benefits: Unlike online course evaluations that close with students’ responses to questions, Guzzetti’s postmortem is a two-hour, informal dialogue: “I ask, ‘Why do you think that? Was it worth spending two weeks on the introductory assignment? What did you get out of it?’ It’s a conversation.” The inclusive discussion allows him to address student critique about course structure and specific assignments, as well as the advantages, disadvantages, and motivations for potential changes.

The challenges: For reasons both logistical and pedagogical, it’s not possible to implement all student suggestions. For example, one request for more introductory exercises at the start of the semester would have left less than half the term for work on the final project: “That would result in a rush job where things are put together in haste. I want students to use all 13 weeks to make the most extensive project they can and explain that they need to ‘learn on the job’ throughout the semester.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Cultivate trust to invite authentic feedback. The small course size and collaborative project work makes students feel comfortable being candid: “After 13 weeks, essentially serving as a consultant to student projects, I find there is an atmosphere of trust. I believe if I ask them questions about their experience in the course, they will answer them frankly—and it’s been my experience they do.” Larger courses might accomplish this in sections.
  • Negotiate constraints together. Recognizing that the strict semester schedule has many aspects antithetical to filmmaking, Guzzetti has built infrastructure to make student success more likely, including greater access to equipment and an abbreviated project proposal process. He acted on one student’s suggestion that the film study assignment—where students study a film sequence and present their analysis to the class—be completed in pairs: “I wouldn’t have thought of it, and it worked well.”
  • Be open to redefining what it means to teach. Guzzetti truly considers his students collaborators, valuing their input in course development, but also in terms of his role in their academic projects: “Really, they are younger versions of myself, trying something for the first time. Rather than teaching them, I think my input saves them time. I have a body of experience, and as a colleague of mine suggested, my role is really ‘coach.’”

Bottom line: Guzzetti finds the postmortem conversation the most meaningful way to close the course, exchange feedback, and provide a critical reflective moment for both students and instructor. He finds grades less valuable than this conversation for student learning: “The best thing I can say about the grades is that they’re irrelevant.”