As academics we know that the way that a class goes, how much students get out of a class, and their evaluation of the course or the material depends heavily on the students themselves. How much effort do they put in? Are they prepared to learn? Do they contribute to discussions and take the material and assignments seriously? What are their previous experiences and biases? Despite the student-centeredness of learning, most of us grossly neglect student insight. When we do ask for it, it takes the form of evaluations – of our classes and teaching, which can devolve into fashion critiques – where we (our teaching, our course) are the focus.
I wanted to briefly introduce two way that I turn the spotlight to the students themselves and then use student insight to improve my courses (and students’ experiences in them) without (necessarily) having to make a single change of my own.
The first came out of my experiences as a mother. There was a time when my son thought that every word I spoke was the truth. Somewhere between the terrible twos and tweens, I lost him. I was no longer the ultimate authority. His peers became the final word on everything (except sociology, he’d give me that). I decided that all the time I spent telling students that they would be best served if they bought the book, did the reading, showed up to class, participated, etc. was wasted breath. Like B, they didn’t believe me. I was the professor. It was my job to dupe them into doing such things. They wanted the cold, hard facts from their peers. To save them from having to seek out former students – or from inferring that just because a colleague lectures straight out of a book, I must too – I began doing the heavy-lifting for them. At the end of any particular course, I asked my students to share advice with the next semester’s crop of students and I include this advice in the syllabus the next semester. Here’s how such advice from a recent semester looked as a wordle (an idea I got from Philip Cohen):
The students bought it hook, line, and sinker. It didn’t matter that this is what I had been saying to them all along. A few students might have picked up the same ideas from the underground ND student reviews, but now everyone was equipped with the secrets to doing well and I heard a lot less complaints later. I also noticed that more students did the reading, took more detailed notes, and so forth.
The second very small way to turn the spotlight on the students and their role in the course is in the mid-term evaluations (I learned this trick in graduate school and wish I could remember who to credit for it).
Most of my colleagues do some sort of mid-term evaluation, just to get a sense of how things are going. Those who don’t, though, feel like they’ve taught the class so many times – or this type of student so many times – that there will be nothing of use gleaned from them. This defeats the purpose. Sure, a mid-term evaluation is about discovering any significant issues, but it’s really a matter of increasing students’ perceptions of voice (to borrow from the procedural justice literature). Basically, people feel that processes – and resulting outcomes – are more fair if they had a chance to voice their opinions and to be heard. Midterm evaluations allow students to do that, particularly if a professor goes over the themes in class, showing that they considered them. Making a change based on the evaluations goes even further with students, but isn’t necessary. It is important to also use the midterm evaluations as a platform for asking students to make a change. In addition to asking them What do you like most about this course?, What do you like least about the course?, and What changes can the professor make to enhance your learning/experience in this class?, I ask, What changes can you make to enhance your learning/experience in this class?
Inevitably students realize that they could read more, take better notes, apply the concepts to other examples, ask questions if they don’t understand things… all very good things for students to do. The question makes them take ownership, even if only partial, of what they ultimately get out of the course. Going over the responses to this question with the class also allows me to touch on good study skills for students and to give them pointers – in a situation where they are more inclined to listen, as it feels like one of their own brought it up – to help them succeed in the course.
These are just two small ways that I try to use students’ insight to reach students and to remind students that the “success” of the class is not all about me, but also about them. Do scatterplot readers have other ideas about how to better incorporate student voices in our classes?