What Students Want Colleges to Know About How They Learn

Digital Learning

What Students Want Colleges to Know About How They Learn

By Sydney Johnson     Aug 7, 2018

What Students Want Colleges to Know About How They Learn

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

Even the best instructors may not be able to reach every student. And often that’s because there is a disconnect between what students expect from college teaching and what actually ends up happening in the classroom.

In July, three members from EdSurge Independent, a student-run group that meets weekly to discuss ideas around higher education and technology, joined EdSurge Live to share what they wish faculty knew about students today, and propose ways to fuse instructional gaps.

The guests are Angele Law, an MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management and a strategic summer associate at Boston Public Schools; Patrick Grady O'Malley, who's pursuing a master’s degree in digital humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and who holds a master’s in educational communications and technology from NYU; and Megan Simmons, an undergraduate at Barnard College in New York City, where she studies political science.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to the audio version below or on your favorite podcast app.

EdSurge: Thanks you three first of all for joining us. To get started, what are some of the channels that currently exist, if any, for students to interact with their faculty or instructors around teaching and curriculum?

Grady O'Malley: It's been my experience that faculty have been always open to hear anything throughout the semester. There's the option of just directly approaching them with an immediate concern or question. However, I think the whole system could benefit if there were more town hall events like this, where faculty get together with the students outside of class for formal or informal type meetings, to discuss the curriculum going forward. I don't think that students have enough input into it, and I do think that is a shame. I wish there were better ways of sharing my concerns other than at the end of the semester when you fill out those [teacher evaluations].

I'm sure all three of you have some degree of experience with this. Do students take those evaluations seriously or do faculty take those evaluations seriously?

Simmons: In my experience, students definitely take those really seriously, because it is the one institutional way that we can give our thoughts that is really validated by the school in its own process. However, I don't always feel as though that seriousness is being reciprocated. At my campus, there's actually an underground website for rating professors, giving advice to future students about the workload [for a class].

It was created as a way to say, "If they're not going to listen to us, we're still going to warn future students about whether they should take this class or not." So what’s really frustrating is that students definitely take those seriously but it might not always be taken as seriously by the university.

Law: Given that most evaluation forms are filled out at the end of the semester, a lot of students feel like, "Well even if I provide that feedback, it doesn't really benefit ourselves in that scenario." So, it really depends on how eager the student is to help improve the whole situation and the course specifically. I think in terms of its timing, the course evaluation coming only at the end affects whether the professor could make adjustments, and also how eager students are when it comes to participating in that progress.

I see for example some professors doing an informal course evaluation midway of the semester. They’re creating their own surveys and say, "How do you feel about this?" Then actively pick sometime within their lecture to say, "Here's a summary of the collection of the feedback I've received, here's what I would do based on this feedback." I think that communication and awareness from students is very important.

Apart from course evaluation, which is embedded within the normal semester, and kind of a mandatory process, I think the other stakeholder that we often forget is the teaching assistants. This role is seen as people working on administrative work for the professor or marking papers. But that person could be a great channel for these communications to see what's going well or what's not.

We've been talking a lot about evaluations for teaching, but I'd love to dig into the teaching itself. So, what are some examples of college teaching that have really stood out?

Grady O'Malley: I took an intro to the cognitive sciences in my earlier program at NYU, and it was largely lecture-based and that was very helpful, and there was a great deal of readings outside of class. But we were also expected to participate within this online environment that was created through our school. This was a core class that pretty much everyone in the program had to take. It was very, very helpful. There were just so many different ways to engage with the curriculum and the topics, and it was all very multimodal. It was just overall just very, very interactive and it made the whole experience a lot better, because it was dry material, but it just made it easier to absorb and to be able to talk about it in class.

Simmons: Part of my school’s curriculum is a required first year seminar to make sure you're not just drowning in 400-person lectures. Having those classes was so great, and one of my professors for one of them was absolutely incredible, and she was able to take us seriously, acknowledge that we were adults and that we were serious about being there, but was also able to do the work of getting a first year student on track. So, I think taking your students seriously, and acknowledging that they want to be there and that they are serious about being there, has made such a big difference in the classroom setting.

Law: For me, classes that have the element of action learning would be something that excites me a lot. As a business student, taking theory into action is something really important, and the relations to which our situations is related to the problems in the real world.

It's not necessarily that students need to say "This is what I want to learn. This is what I don't want to learn," but somehow making it flexible to where they could link a specific interest, say, on a specific company or a specific scenario within the overarching course objective. That would be easier to implement, and also from the students perspective much more enjoyable.

Simmons: I went to an expeditionary learning high school, which it's essentially a really fancy title for experimental and project-based learning, and I absolutely loved it. The whole goal there is that every assessment that you're doing is project-based, so that you have a project at the end of every assignment and every class. It really made me feel like I was actually producing something and that I was getting a lot more out of school than just cramming for a test, and then forgetting the material within the next week.

We have a question from one of our attendees right now, Jerry Reed.

Reed: This is a followup to Patrick. I'm curious about that online experience. Was the faculty member or any teaching assistant involved or was that all student mediated?

Grady O'Malley: No, the faculty member had a great deal to do with it as far as monitoring how it was being interacted with. There was also a great deal of learning analytics attached to it. So, [the instructor] was able to see just about everything we did. We were assigned to do X amount of things within that environment, and she knew if we did it or not.

Reed: Did she react to things that were happening in the environment or was everything structured or staged, and you went through it based on feedback or interaction?

Grady O'Malley: She was able to add comments to things and like or dislike certain things—and people would put up comments below. It was very social media-like in its interface. She was able to interact with us as we went through different parts of the online environment.

Megan, someone in the audience has asked if you could share a couple of examples of those project to based learning projects that you worked on.

Simmons: Sure. I took a law and policy class my senior year of high school, and so at the end of the year instead of having a final exam, we each were tasked with finding a problem related to policy, government, law of politics and coming up with a way to fix it. I was personally interested in voter turnout and why the United States has such low levels of voter turnout on both sides of the aisle.

So I ended up creating the curriculum for a civic engagement class that would be taught to middle schoolers. I designed this curriculum, made worksheets, came up with projects and was actually able to go spend a couple days in a local middle school, teaching the class to see how it went and how that engagement looked. After that, I had to write a final 10-page research paper, and present to a panel of experts.

When I walked away, not only did I have a final grade for this class, but I had a paper, I had the experience of presenting and I had this physical product that I could use in the future. It was much more meaningful and I got so much more out of it than just taking a final exam for that class.

What are some assumptions that are baked into courses about students? We talk about digital natives, for example. What are some things faculty assume about students today and are those accurate at all?

Law: In universities, we don't really talk about student-centered learning as much as we do in K-12, because, I guess some of us would assume university is more academic, and that it's more about leveraging the intellectual knowledge of the professor. I don't necessarily feel that student differences coming into the classroom are often considered when designing [curriculum], let alone when having a discussion of what works for a certain people or what kind of knowledge students bring to the table. I think it's a pity we don't really have that conversation in the first place.

I think a lot of the pushback around student centered learning at the university level is because we feel like there's just too many students to consider. Hence administratively, it's more difficult to do. But technology enables the understanding of students backgrounds a little bit more. Or even not using technology: it might just be passing out a little paper asking “can you introduce yourself a bit more? Why are you interested in this topic? What knowledge regarding this topic are you familiar with?” There are really low-tech solutions that are really easy to implement, and you get a sense of at least what the student background is, and their needs and wants for that course.

We have a question from EdSurge’s very own Michael Sano.

Michael Sano: Hi everybody. We've talked a lot about these traditional forms of feedback, one-on-one professor-to-student or class-to-professor. I know in my previous roles, I depended a lot on the student government and these traditional mechanisms of gathering feedback from students. But a lot of times, we get these messages from the outside. I think students would sometimes share more honest or more raw opinions through social media.

How much should faculty and administrators pay attention to those messages, where should they look for them, and how should they balance that with the messages they're getting in more traditional ways?

Simmons: I'm thinking a little bit about our underground rating system, and I don't really know if I would want a professor to go on there to get honest feedback, because I feel like the people that feel so inclined to go on social media, to go on these websites, to go on these rating systems, are either so extremely angry about how the class went, or just love it so, so, much and think that nothing should be changed. I think you really capture the extremes there.

I think you need something more for those middle people—those people who are like, "Yeah, this class was fine, there are ways it could be better, it could definitely be worse too and this is how I think it could get better." There needs to be a separate platform other than those feedback forms to capture that whole range of students, so it can all be taken collectively.

Grady O'Malley: With my old program at NYU, they had a Facebook page, and it was really like an open marketplace where students could connect with one another, and also with the faculty. It was a way for faculty members to advertise available work positions and things like that, but I always see new students on there trying to introduce themselves and get a sense of what they should expect when they start. It helped me a lot.

But there wasn't a lot of feedback about classes on that page—just because faculty were so intertwined with what was going on. So, I don't think anyone would ever say anything really good or bad about a specific class or a faculty member right there in such a public forum.

We are almost out of time. So, if there is one thing you wish that faculty or instructors knew about students today, that you think they don't, what is it?

Simmons: Mine would be that students care, students are interested and students are invested in the course. We wouldn't be there if we weren't.

Grady O'Malley: For me, I know that everyone comes with baggage, and there's things going on in everyone's lives, and it's hard to be everywhere at once. But it's the worst thing when you have a situation, and a faculty person, or a member won't budge and help you with some leeway, because they think you're making up an excuse. So, I really hate that.

Law: For me, I feel like if professors tend to see students as a partner in which you could work with, instead of someone that you have to serve or someone that you see yourself as superior to. Making sure that you treat them as a partner and making that course a fruitful experience for everyone is a better mentality to adopt.

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