It may seem like letting the fox in to guard the henhouse when students are asked to help with the way a class is taught, but it can be valuable to learn directly about student perceptions of course presentations. Having students help direct your course teaching is not such a bad idea. Serious students can gain a lot of insight about the art of teaching well when they begin to look at a course from the viewpoint of teaching rather than listening. And these same students can give excellent feedback on a number of issues, of which some the teacher is aware and some he or she is not.
The Goals of Student Management Teams
What are student management teams? They are groups of students who become partners in many aspects of course teaching. They act as advisors, spokespersons, and intermediaries who provide a valuable service in improving course structure, presentation of course material, and even the pace of the course.
The idea for student management teams arises from manufacturing quality circles, where workers are able to contribute to improvements in product efficiency, fabrication, and quality processes . Teachers can often use some assistance with their instruction skills or with the way they deliver information in courses they teach. Many instructors will admit that, at least during the first couple of times they teach new courses, the presentation can be a little rough: they haven’t yet found the best ways to present material or even the exact topics to include. The first few classes of students who enroll in these courses are guinea pigs taking part in instructional experimentation.
Consequently, students who are taking the class, or who have already taken it, are a good resource capable of delivering the feedback desirable for improving the course and its instructor’s presentation. Even mature courses and experienced instructors often have room for improvement that can be facilitated by asking students enrolled in the course for their opinions about the course or the instructor teaching it.
Schwartz  describes student course management teams as focused either on the skills of the professor or on the course itself. Possible student management team tasks related to the first focus are
- helping give feedback on delivery
- completing a class survey
- reviewing previous student evaluations to discuss strengths and weaknesses
- studying videos of class sessions
- suggesting specific changes in approach. If the focus is on the course, then possible tasks for teams are
- helping improve organization of course material
- helping improve clarity of material presentation
- providing an assessment of the course textbook
- offering opinions on the value of course assignments
- suggesting ways to reduce absenteeism.
In either case, the goal is to improve the educational experiences of the students attending a course by finding out what the students themselves think of their experiences thus far. If the discussions among team members and the instructor are honest and open, and if the students perceive that their comments are being taken seriously, then all involved should feel responsibility for the success of the course and, especially, student learning.
Of course, not all instructors will be comfortable consulting students about course or teaching mechanics–particularly, those who are new to a course and haven’t quite gone beyond making major adjustments to how the course will be taught or who completely decided on the scope of the course material, as well as those who do not have confidence in their teaching ability. But those instructors who are willing to listen to direct and immediate student feedback can find enlightenment from their course management teams.
An Example of Working with a Student Management Team
I established student course management teams in my junior-level Transport Process Design course required for bioengineering majors. My objective was to see whether these teams would improve the effectiveness of the course by providing useful feedback about issues of pace, explanations, and other course details. I asked members of each team to tell me about whether my teaching style was effective, whether the material was explained well enough, whether more review was necessary, and even if quiz questions were fair. In my student management teams, I did not separate the two foci related to course or instruction listed earlier. I wanted information about both issues and was relatively confident at the time in my teaching ability and in the topics and presentation styles of material in the course. The course was mature, and so was I.
At the time, I was teaching from my textbook, Biological Process Engineering, which presents transport of fluids, heat, and mass as resistance, capacity, and inertial relationships between effort variables and flow variables. I knew from previous years that students had the most trouble with the first chapter, because it was in that chapter that mathematical relationships important to all transport processes were translated into concrete symbolic concepts. Students generally do not comprehend well the meaning of mathematical equations and tend to avoid mathematics as much as possible , but they can conceptualize what effects a resistor, capacity element, or inertial element can have in a transport system diagram. The remainder of the course fleshed out the details to calculate values of these elements.
Once past the point when all of this was established, however, students usually had formed the concepts needed to understand well the rest of the course material. So the most valuable feedback from the student management teams was at the beginning of the course. During this period, team members often acted as liaisons between me and other students in the course by asking questions they and the other students had in relation to the material that was presented in class. If the team members comprehended my answers, then no further questions were asked; if the answers were still unclear, then they asked follow-up questions. It seemed that they must have gone back to other students in the course and explained things to them, because this definitely reduced the number of questions asked of me in class.
The details of course management teams in my Transport Process Design course were related to the organization of the course. There are four major chapters in my book, and I assigned each student in the course to a four or five member homework and design project group, repopulated with different groupings of students for each chapter. I believed that groups could be very effective in cooperative learning and help to acclimatize engineering students to working with others as they probably would be doing after graduation. Each of these groups was required to designate a leader, and the total of these leaders constituted the course management team. We met once a week in the student union, and I usually provided some refreshment in a less-than-formal atmosphere. Being on the student management team required an additional one hour commitment for team members.
Because the groups in the course changed for each book chapter, the course management team members also changed for each chapter. This may have been a weakness of my experiment, because the relationships developed with course management team members rarely carried over to the new groupings with the change for each book chapter. On the other hand, because of this turnover, I got to know very well many of my students in the course, and many of them responded by appreciating the challenges of teaching a course where everyone is expected to learn the material.
After that initial period of concept formation, the functionality of the course management teams seemed to change. Instead of questions of a technical nature, they asked a lot of questions related to scheduling and mechanistic details: When would the next project be assigned? What types of projects were likely to be assigned? It was at this point that the course management team participation seemed to become less valuable for the students and for me. Whenever I asked questions regarding the mechanics of my classroom presentations, I received very little valuable insight.
Some Lessons Learned
I continued my experiment with student management teams for three years. I truly believe that my course improved and my teaching improved because of the feedback the students provided. After a couple of years, however, the benefits of student management teams for me declined to the point that the extra time spent meeting with the students was not easily justified.
However, one of the main insights I gleaned from meeting with the teams was that I needed to get to know each student individually as fully as I was capable. As long as I made that attempt, each student seemed to appreciate my efforts to make them better engineers.
- R. A. Schwartz, “Improving course quality with student management teams,” ASEE Prism, vol. 5, no. 5, pp. 19–23, Jan. 1996.
- A. T. Johnson, “Math aversion,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 56–57, 2012.