Monday, March 19, 2007

Consulting with students

Yesterday evening I had the consultation with students that I mentioned the other day. I had a small but great group - my best students, really (surprise, surprise). In one sense, it's really too bad that it was only these people, because there's a kind of split in the program and I think it's important to hear from the other folks. But I have to admit, these are the thoughtful, brilliant ones, the ones with whom communication teaches me things. So I prefer talking with them. And it made it much easier to manage the session, about which I was strangely worried.

So it was lovely and gave me lots to think about in terms of designing courses and curriculum at my next job, and thinking of an emphasis for the program.

It also got me thinking, though, about student consultation in general. About why it doesn't happen more often, at the departmental level. I can already anticipate some of the objections - students don't have a sense of what's important in terms of planning and executing their degrees, they don't understand the importance of certain requirements, they're just going to be trying to reduce their workload, etc., etc.

But what I found is that a lot of them are really committed to learning, and really invested in getting the most out of the program. For instance, a lot of what I heard yesterday was about perceived gaps in the program - areas they'd like to learn more about, that they really feel should be much better represented in the department's offerings and emphases. Their comments are right on - I agree (and I know my Chair does, too). There are some crucial areas underrepresented (one of which I could fill, ironically, if I were to stay on here).

Another thing we talked about was assessment strategies, assignment design. I heard about what works for them, what doesn't. It wasn't about not wanting to work - they talked about assignments they've loved, have gotten a lot from. But I did get to hear about the way pressures sometimes interfere with the learning process - like when they have 5 long papers due in two weeks in March. So they were constructive - they thought about other ways to design assessment that increased their ability to learn from and enjoy their assignments.

I think consulting with students can actually be really valuable, and it kind of puzzles me that it doesn't happen more often. Of course there are course evaluations. But at this university, for instance, nobody has to see them except the instructor! So much for using them to systematically reflect on the program. And of course, here there are three student reps on the program committee, who come to department meetings. But their presence isn't for these kinds of reasons at all.

Since the session, I've been thinking about ways to get student input, to build that in to the program at my new job. I think of things like sessions with graduating students (like exit interviews!) as one possible scneario. I also think that this might need to be built into the program at the level of mission or mandate - so that perhaps the first thing I will need to do at that new job is to develop exactly that kind of document. Anyway, I'd be really interested in hearing from folks about their thoughts on student consultation, and any models they might have for it from their own departments or histories.


psychgrad said...

This sounds like a really good idea. I try to ask for feedback from students...I find it can be difficult to ask for feedback without risking your authority. As a younger female professor, some students take try to take advantage of my openness to feedback.

But, it's very refreshing to see a professor who speaks positively about students. It seems that most conversations about students around my department tend to go in a negative direction.

Hilaire said...

I agreee with you about the riskiness of asking for feedback. Also, I think you really have to steel yourself to hear it...or even to read it. I have a set of course evals from my course that finished in December, that I haven't even opened yet! Can't face them, even though I generally get very positive evaluations.

And, yes!! Sometimes I'm a little alarmed by the intensely negative ways some faculty tend to portray all students. I've been a round a lot of that this year - not so much from my own department colleagues, but some people from other deparatments - and it is *really* unfair, sometimes grotesquely self-interested caricatures.