In higher education, we often think about how we can improve our teaching and learning. If you are like me, you wrestle with this question after a well-prepared lecture does not go as expected, or as you are trying to make sense of your student evaluations, or as a new semester is about to begin. Oftentimes, the answers are not easy or obvious. We may seek out colleagues or experts in our teaching centers, but rarely do these discussions of better teaching include students. Why is this? The people who could most assist us fill our classrooms, but we rarely ask for their thoughts and ideas. When we do, it is for a fleeting ten minutes at the end of a course when we ask them to complete the student evaluations. Even then, we do not hear what they have to say. Instead, sometime later, we try to decipher what they have written in the “suggestions for improvement” box. Then it’s easy to misinterpret their feedback and attribute any criticism as their need to vent their frustrations about the course.
If we are to improve the teaching and learning process in higher education, faculty and students must share in the effort. I realized the value of this collaboration after I was given a spiral-bound book in my second semester of teaching, some 15 years ago. This book, now dog-eared and worn, still resides on my bookshelf, boasting content as fitting today as it was 15 years ago.
The booklet, A Handbook for Student Management Teams
by Edward Nuhfer (1992), was given to me by the director of the university’s teaching excellence center after I reached out to him with questions about how I should improve my teaching. To my surprise, he informed me that he did not have the answers, but my students did. When he handed me the booklet, he warned me that if I was brave enough to institute a student management team in my course and to openly discuss my teaching concerns with the student team, in the end I would be blessed with answers to my questions about teacher improvement.
A student management team (SMT) is the academic equivalent of the total quality management system commonly used in the manufacturing industry. It rests on the premise that applying continuous improvement to a process is critical to its success and advancement. According to Nuhfer, the originator of the idea of SMT as a teacher improvement tool, “student management teams are a means to restore essential communication about teaching and learning between students and faculty”. They also allow instructors to make course improvements in real time, monitor the success of those changes, and adjust the changes all within a given semester—an opportunity not provided by end-of-course evaluations!
An SMT consists of three to four students currently enrolled in the course. These students are usually volunteers who agree to monitor the course, gather feedback from peers, share the feedback with the instructor, and brainstorm methods to implement the resulting suggestions and improvements. Nuhfer’s Handbook
contains detailed guidelines that spell out the roles of both the students on the team and the instructor. The students will usually meet with the instructor on a biweekly basis to discuss the teaching and learning that’s occurring in the course. The feedback the SMT provides gives the instructor insights into the students’ perspectives on various aspects of teaching and learning.
With my first SMT, the meetings began very simply with recommendations regarding the notes that I put on the chalkboard or the additional directions students needed to clarify assignments and projects. I began to implement these minor changes and, to my surprise, students were very receptive to this acknowledgement of their learning needs. After this, the team and I started discussing more significant issues. The students began to delve deeper into what was truly important to their learning and my teaching. I was often surprised by their level of commitment to this process. At several of our meetings, they shared materials from articles and books that explained why a particular teaching method or educational technology should be incorporated into the classroom. It was not uncommon for the SMT discussion to spill over into full-class discussion of teaching–learning concerns. I was stopped in my tracks one day as I entered my classroom to find my SMT at the back of the room setting up video equipment to record my lecture. When I inquired about this, one of the team members stated that to help me improve on my teaching, I had to see myself teach. I later met with the SMT and we critiqued the video, similar to how a coach reviews footage with the team after a game. I made significant strides in my teaching that semester and in the semesters that followed as I continued to seek feedback from my students.
I attribute my success in teaching to the discussions and feedback I have received from students, especially from the students in my first SMT, who truly pushed me to be successful, just as I work to push students to succeed in learning. So when you read through those comments on your course evaluations or have a lecture that did not go as planned, instead of wrestling alone with what isn’t working or asking colleagues for advice, I suggest you open the door to discussion with your students.
Nuhfer, Ed. 1992. A Handbook for Student Management Teams
. Denver: University of Colorado at Denver.
Linda Wanless, Michigan Technological University. firstname.lastname@example.org