Don't be Afraid to Ask the Students
Bunny Paine-Clemes, Ph.D, California Maritime Academy
"If assessment is to improve the quality of student learning, and not just provide greater accountability, both
faculty and students must become personally invested and actively involved in the process" (Angelo and Cross, 1993).
On March 22, 2000, about twenty members of the Associated Students Organization assembled to critique our general education program. At that meeting the focus group members made four main suggestions aimed at improving the quality of student learning:
Hands-On Activities: This suggestion received the strongest endorsement. When asked what they meant by "hands-on," students gave these examples from past courses: memorizing and acting out a scene from Shakespeare; engaging in small group discussions, especially critical thinking exercises: i.e., breaking apart the Valdez disaster, with one group analyzing what happened with the Coast Guard; a second group with the captain; a third with the legal implications; and a spokesperson reporting the findings to the class; doing group design projects or panel discussions. In essence, the students recommended strategies for active learning and adamantly complained of lectures being "boring”.
Visual Aids: This suggestion was the second most important. Students said that any visual aid would help to snag their interest--even a technique as simple as writing a term on the board, then returning to underline that term or put a box around it as additional points are made in discussion. In their own study, Angelo and Cross reported that some students struggled to keep their attention focused and advised their professor to "move around more, draw and write more on the board, use more examples, tell a few jokes."
Instructor Attitude: Students want to see their professors eager to teach the class. One of them said, of seemingly apathetic professors, "What I really hate is when they come in and say they're doing too much and they're tired from committee work. Why are they there if they don't want to teach the class? I want them to be excited. It really turns me off if they don't want to be here." Another student said, "If they're enthusiastic, they can even lecture, and it won't be boring.
Relevance: "During lectures, students want to hear examples that relate to their own experience. A representative remark in the Cal Maritime focus group was, "We're at a maritime school. We want to hear maritime examples. If you're talking about sociology, tell about how it applies on board ship." Sports examples also rated highly with this group: "Professor Blank used examples from the game the other night. That really got my attention." One of the students said, "What I really hate is when they come in and give examples from the sixties." When I explained that professors are more likely to give examples from domains with which they are more familiar or experienced, the answer, one that inspired the title of this report, was, "Don't be afraid to ask the students."
Students felt strongly about these issues. Focus group members insisted that the crucial factor in their ability to learn is not how courses differ but how instructors differ—and that it is the instructor who determines the success of the course. The Associated Students officers were so pleased at being asked for their advice that they have established a committee to provide student feedback on our academic programs.
The comments above, from twenty or so students on a specialized campus, cannot be called a random sample of student attitudes throughout the country. However, other studies have replicated some of the same results. (National Science Foundation, 1996; Cerbin, 1996; Feldman, 1976; Kulik and McKeachie, 1975)
"Don't be afraid to ask the students." Sometimes, even when the answer to our question is not surprising, we can benefit from hearing it again. As Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century lexicographer, said, most of us simply need to be reminded of what we already know.
Paine-Clemes, B. (2001, April 10, 2001). Don’t be afraid to ask the students. Exchanges: The Online Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU. Retrieved and lightly edited August 6, 2001, from http://www.calstate.edu/ITL/exchanges/viewpoints/ Dont_be_Afraid_pg1.html TLC 9/01