Students learn to take responsibility for their learning by giving input on how the class is going and what needs to be changed. This works in classes of all sizes.
Background and Purpose
The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is predominantly an undergraduate public institution with an enrollment of approximately 14,000. The Department of Mathematics is in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. This encourages meaningful interaction between mathematicians and users of mathematics. The fact that the Mathematics Education Group (those at UNH who educate mathematics teachers for elementary and secondary schools) resides within the Department of Mathematics has fostered special concern about educational matters. Although I am a regular member of the Department of Mathematics and not part of the Mathematics Education Group, I am continually experimenting with new teaching methods. For example, I use student-centered methods in my standard sized classes of around thirty students and am experimenting with extending these methods to classes of up to 250 students.
In order to promote a student-centered approach in the classroom, several times during the course I formally gather student input. This input is then the basis for a class discussion about possible changes. Getting early feedback from students and implementing changes improve the course and my teaching. Students are also gratified to be able to give input and see their suggestions implemented. Much of what I do in the classroom has been inspired by the work of psychologist Carl Rogers. The three core conditions for successful psychotherapy that Rogers  formulated, in what is now called the Person-Centered Approach (PCA) apply to all human relationships, but, in particular, to student- teacher and student-student relationships.
These core conditions as I understand them are:
(1) Unconditional positive regard: The therapist is willing and able to value the client and trusts that the client has the ability to solve her/his own problems.
(2) Empathy: The therapist is willing and able to put her/his experience aside and really understand the experience and feelings of the client.
(3) Congruence: The expressions and communications of the therapist genuinely represent the true thoughts and feelings of the therapist.
In the classroom Rogers believed that "students can be trusted to learn and to enjoy learning, when a facilitative person can set up an attitudinal and concrete environment which encourages responsible participation in selection of goals and ways of reaching them." (from fly leaf, )
Immediately after the first and second exams, at approximately the fourth and eighth weeks of the course respectively, I pass out questionnaires soliciting anonymous student feedback. Some questions seek open responses and others seek specific responses to matters of concern to me or my class. After collecting the questionnaires at the next class, I pass out a written summary of the results and we discuss possible changes. When there is general agreement, we adopt such changes. In cases of disagreement, we discuss possible actions and try to arrive at consensus. When someone has formulated what seems to be a good decision, we take a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, thumbs-to-the-side ("Will support but not my first choice") vote. We ask everyone who voted thumbs-down or thumbs-to-the-side to tell what would have to be done in order for them to change their vote. We try to incorporate these suggestions and come up with a better decision to try out.
Examples of issues and topics of discussion which have come up include: use of calculators on exams; use of "cheat sheets" on exams; the number of times cooperative groups should be changed during the semester and method of choosing the groups; grading criteria, methods of insuring individual responsibility in group work; use of too much time discussing class processes; etc.
Sometimes the class arrives at a decision that I don't like. Using Rogers' third condition, "congruence," I explain why I disagree with their decision, but if the students are not swayed to my point of view, if possible I go along with them. This is an application of the first condition, "unconditional positive regard."
The matters addressed on the questionnaire generally fall into three categories:
(1) Attitudinal. E.g.:
(2) Specific questions address problematic areas. E.g.:
(3) Open response items seek general input. E.g.:
Findings and Use of Findings
Attitudinal questions are especially useful after I have tried something innovative, and I want to know how the class feels about it.
Often students come up with better ways to deal with difficulties that arise in the classroom than methods I have heard in professional conferences and workshops. Thus it seems that giving students "unconditional positive regard" is warranted. Examples of things implemented as a result of student feedback and discussion are:
Of course students want their input taken seriously. Therefore, presenting a summary in writing at the class following the survey and using it as a basis for discussion of possible changes is very effective. If the discussion leads to a decision to make a change, it is important to implement it immediately.
As good as this all seems, not everything is rosy. When there is considerable disagreement on a matter, some students think that the resulting discussion is "wasting valuable class time." In fact, some students would like the teacher to make all the decisions and they object to using any class time to discuss the surveys. Other students resist change and object to trying different approaches in mid-semester. When a change is implemented and doesn't work, these students are particularly vehement. And certainly not everything works the way we think it will. For example, I have tried students suggestions about how to quiet a lecture hall after the students have been working in cooperative groups but none of them have worked. However if the entire class is invested in a decision, it has the greatest chance of success.
It takes extra time to make up survey questionnaires, and even more time to summarize the results while also grading exams. (Work-study students may help with the summariza tion.) But the extra effort pays off because it makes the course more alive and interesting for both the students and the teacher. Students and teacher alike learn from carrying out early in-course assessments.
 Rogers, C. R. "The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change." Journal of Consulting Psychology 21(2), 1957, pp. 95-103.
 Rogers, C. R. Freedom to Learn. Merrill