Taking the “Pulse” of your Course

K.Park/ September 4, 2020/ 1 comments

This content is an excerpt from one of the content pages I am writing for my department. It will be used as part of my office’s professional development offerings and it is about why and how instructors can check their “course climate” in an online course.

What is course climate?

Many instructors have a desire to see every student succeed in their course. Yet, despite that, there may still be barriers in their classroom that limits that desire from coming to fruition. We hope by providing the information below, that instructors will be able to begin the work to reduce those barriers and work towards creating the type of environment that they want their students to experience.

In How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose, 2010), course climate can be defined as “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn” (p. 170). Ambrose goes on to write that there are several interacting factors that influence climate, including, but not limited to:

  • Faculty to student and student to student interactions
  • Tone of course
  • Examples of stereotyping or tokenism
  • Course demographics (which are often out of an instructor’s hands)
  • Perspectives represented in the course materials

Due to the complexities around course climate, it is better to think of climate being on a continuum rather than your climate being good or bad.  With that in mind, we recommend combining the strategies below about course climate with the strategies in this course that help create an inclusive classroom, a pedagogy of care, and ongoing work to make content accessible to all learners.  Regular check-ins and proactively including students throughout the course by taking a “pulse on the areas above” can help instructors maintain a welcome and inclusive climate throughout the quarter.

How do I integrate student feedback?

There are many ways to obtain and incorporate student perspectives and feedback during the term beyond the end of quarter Student Feedback, also called course evaluations. Some of the common methods to obtain feedback during class are:

  • Have students write down anything that they found confusing or want the instructor to talk about at the next class session
    • Some people may refer to this as the “muddiest point”
  • Knowledge-check type activities, such as self-assessment quizzes where instant feedback can be provided to a student
  • Mid-quarter feedback on overall perspectives of the course
  • Polls during class

Often, these types of feedback are in relation to how well students are comprehending content and may not address other aspects of a course that are important for creating a welcoming and inclusive environment. Some additional areas instructor may want to consider obtaining feedback from students may include:

  • The design of the course and how easy or difficult it was to find course content
  • Whether or not they feel like the right support and resources for assignments and projects was provided
  • Whether or not students understood the grading criteria and expectations of the course
  • Whether or not students felt like they could see themselves and experienced diverse perspectives in the course
  • What students’ value and if they see the course fitting into their future career goals
  • When students are feeling engaged or distanced from the course or the materials

How can I collect this information?

According to the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development (2015), which has been renamed to the Faculty Life Office, if an instructor indicates that they sincerely want student feedback and that it helps improve the quality of the course, students are just as likely to complete the feedback as they would if an incentive was provided. The same can be said for other feedback throughout a course. If an instructor provides opportunities and has honest dialogue from the beginning, then students will be more open and likely to provide feedback. 

One of the challenges in collecting feedback is making sure there are opportunities for all students to provide their thoughts. Having students post on a discussion board can be a great opportunity to share knowledge and have students interact with each other, but they can take time or be difficult to follow due to the number of the responses; some students may not even respond. Ground Rules of participation in a course can help with some of those challenges, but if an instructor tends to have low response rates, we encourage them to think through the purpose of the board and the participation expectations in the course. While there are strategies that can be employed to improve the discussion board experience in a course, instructors may also want to consider using other formats to collect feedback.

Even though there are tools within Canvas or other Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as quizzes, instructors may want to use a third-party tool instead. We recommend instructors keep in mind that any data covered by the Federal Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) be properly stored and that instructors also consider the security and accessibility of the tool. If instructors select a tool that has been vetted by their place of work, typically that review work has already been completed and they can use the tool without worry.

What do I do with this information?

Instructors may not always be able to make immediate changes with the information instructor have collected during the term. If an instructor can make immediate changes, then we encourage the instructor to make the appropriate adjustment and communicate those changes with the students either at the next session or in an email or announcement to the class. When communicating changes to the course make sure you also include why the changes are being made.

Menjares (2017), SPU Board Member, writes “The biblical witness is clear: Every human being has been created in the image of God and thus has inherent worth and dignity (Gen. 1:27,  Ps. 8:5)….The kingdom of God is inclusive, and people come from the east and west and north and south to participate in it (Luke 13:29)…The heavenly vision of the redeemed from every people, nation, tribe, and language are united in worship of God (Rev. 7:9)…These biblical references are a reminder that the people of God are members of one body, diverse, yet united…” (pp. 25-26) and thus, as professors it is our calling that all students, no matter their background, should feel included in courses they take.

Paying attention to course climate is just one-way instructors can continue the work of creating an inclusive course. Climate is not going to be perfected because each group of students is unique, and the dynamics of a course will be different each time it is taught. It’s something that needs to be worked on and will take time to develop. We hope that by providing these resources, this will help make that work easier and that instructors will be able to get closer to setting the tone and environment they want in their courses.

Additional Resources

We have provided some examples of questions that instructors could ask in their courses:

The Classroom Critical Incident Questionnaire (Brookfield, 2009):

  1. At what moment in this class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  2. At what moment in this class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  3. What action that anyone (instructor or student) took did you find most affirming or helpful?
  4. What action that anyone took did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  5. What about the class surprised you the most? (This could be about your own reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurred).

The APGAR for Class Meetings (Campbell, 2006):

  1. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you are eager to discuss?
  2. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting.
  3. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study?

Assignments and Projects

  1. What was your experience on past similar assignments?
  2. Do you have questions or concerns about this assignment?
  3. Do you have questions or concerns about the grading criteria?
  4. What, if any, expectations did you have going into the assignment?
  5. How did this assignment challenge you or what did you learn from working on this assignment or project?
  6. Did you feel like you had ample support or knew where to get help if you had questions?
  7. Was there anything that surprised you about this assignment?

Zoom Sessions or Other Video content

  1. What do you think about the pacing of content?
  2. What do you think about the length and number of meetings or videos each week?
  3. What would make you feel more connected with your instructor or peers during this course?
  4. What do you like or dislike about the Zoom sessions?
  5. What is one thing that has helped you feel engaged during the Zoom session?
  6. What is one thing that has made you feel distanced during the Zoom session?
  7. How do you use the recorded sessions after they are posted?


Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works : Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (pp. 170-180). John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.spu.edu/lib/spu/detail.action?docID=529947

Brookfield, S. D. (2009). Using the critical incident questionnaire (CIQ). http://www.stephenbrookfield.com/critical-incident-questionnaire

Campbell, G. (2006). APGAR for class meetings. http://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=421

Center for Scholarship & Faculty Development, SPU. (2015). Guidelines for using student course evaluations as part of a course evaluation. http://digitalobby.spu.edu/csfd/wp-content/uploads/sites/60/2018/02/Student-Evaluations-as-Part-of-a-Course-Evaluation.pdf

Computer & Information Systems, Seattle Pacific University. (2020). Regulated data chart. Retrieved from Institutional Policy: https://wiki.spu.edu/x/64BrCg

Hall, R. M., & Sandler, B. R. (1982). The Classroom Climate: A chilly one for women? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, Project on the Status and Education of Women.

Menjares, P. C. (2017). Diversity, inclusion, and institutional faithfulness. In K. A. Longman (Ed.), Diversity matters: Race, ethnicity, & the future of Christian higher education (pp. 25-26). Abilene Christian University Press.

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome work, Karen. I’m sharing with this my Professional Learning Community at work!

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