Grading Gone Good

How student voices can save a semester.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

As we contemplate the new academic year (that’s what colleges call the “school year”), I want to tell you about a great way to get student feedback in your college courses:  the Student Management Team (SMT).  I got the idea from Ed Nuhfer (1997) when he was a colleague of mine at the University of Colorado Denver. You can check out his description of SMTs, my description (Handelsman, 2012), and/or some empirical support for their use (Petkari, 2015; Troisi, 2015).  What I want to do today is draw a picture for you of a successful SMT experience.

SMTs are groups of student in a course (usually 3-5 members plus the instructor) who meet on a regular basis to improve the course by providing feedback and ideas to the professor and gathering feedback from other students. Improving the course in real time avoids the uncomfortable experience of finding out only too late that your course sucked and could have been improved.  My SMTs meet every week starting about a quarter of the way through the semester.  I meet with them every other week, so they have time to meet without me.  SMT members routinely like the experience, even though it means extra work.

Here’s my story:  I was teaching an introductory psychology course with about 50 students.  The first test went uneventfully—in fact, I was impressed with students’ performance.  The second test did not go well.  Students did much worse as a group.  As it turns out, I had inadvertently made the first test too easy and the second test too hard.  Students’ reactions ranged from anger to frustration to resignation to despair. What broke my heart was when one student said, “Why bother studying?” This cut to the heart of the matter—and to the core of my identity as a teacher who wants to help students become life-long learners. I wasn’t even able to help students become semester-long learners!  I was concerned about their learning, the cohesion of the class, and—of course—my course evaluations. It looked like the semester might explode in my face. 

Fortunately, that semester I had a Student Management Team that came to the rescue. We had a regularly-scheduled meeting within a week. I opened the meeting with the problem:  A mistake I made meant that students might be giving up on the course.  How might we rectify it?  I asked the team to explore solutions that would be fair and would get students back on the studying track.  Of course, the first solutions we thought of were obvious and did not meet those criteria:  Give everyone an A, just forget about the test, etc. 

After what seemed like endless discussion, one team member very quietly suggested this:  How about if we make an adjustment to the second test score?  We could tie it to student performance like this:  Each student’s score on the second test would be adjusted to be the average of their second and third test scores.  (If students did worse on the third test, no adjustment would be made.) The rest of us looked at each other, immediately recognizing the elegance of the solution. Students would be rewarded for their studying and I would be reinforced for writing a much better and more accurate test.

Here’s what we did that, I believed, helped the solution work:  The Student Management Team presented their idea—as theirs—at the next class meeting. Students seemed delighted that (a) the first test, which was too easy, would still count, (b) they had a built-in way to improve their performance on the second test, (c) they had an instructor who admitted a mistake and attempted to rectify it, and (d) their SMT went to bat for them and got positive results. I might never have thought of such a good solution, and even if I had, it would not have worked as well had I communicated it to the class myself.  Having the SMT in place also helped us solve a problem quickly with a group of students whose voices (and trust in the process) were already in shape!

My course evaluations that semester were not stellar, but they weren’t horrible and they certainly were better than they would have been. What I remember most is a greater-than-average number of students thanking me at the end of the semester.  Does this story constitute empirical support for SMTs?  Of course not. But was it enough to keep me motivated for the effort it took to run them?  You bet.

References

Handelsman, M. M. (2012). Course evaluation for fun and profit: Student management teams. In J. Holmes, S.C. Baker, & J. R. Stowell (Eds.), Essays from e-xcellence in teaching (Vol. 11, pp. 8-11). Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/eit2011/index.php

Nuhfer, E. B. (19970. Student Management Teams—The Heretic’s Path to Teaching Success. In New Paradigms for College Teaching, ed. W. Campbell & K. Smith, 103–26.

Petkari, E. (2015). Student management teams as a means of communication and learning experience satisfaction. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 197, 559-564.

Troisi, J. D. (2015). Student management teams increase college students’ feelings of autonomy in the classroom. College Teaching, 63(2), 83-89.