June 14, 2017
As a new faculty member teaching a general physics course during her first semester at Ursinus College, Casey Schwarz’s most valuable resource was neither a colleague, nor was it a student in her class.
It was a history major.
“It was like having a secret agent in the classroom who gave me the best insight into how and what students were responding to,” Schwarz says.
Through Ursinus’s Student Consultant Program, Schwarz was paired with Ella McGill ’17, who provided valuable feedback on classroom dynamics and teaching style.
“Ella suggested changes to best utilize my class time and keep students engaged,” says Schwarz, an assistant professor of physics.
The program, a component of the college’s Teaching and Learning Institute, brings together trained student observers and faculty members over the course of a semester. It was established in 2010 to facilitate communication between faculty and students about teaching, and to engage students in the pedagogical process.
“Students don’t often get to peek behind the curtain to really engage with their professors,” McGill says. “The program creates a very unique dynamic in the typical student-teacher relationship.”
The Student Consultant Program was established at Ursinus in 2010 by Meredith Goldsmith, a professor of English and assistant to the president for strategic initiatives, as part of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant the college received in 2009.
“Faculty were initially very hesitant to take feedback from students, but that dissipated almost immediately when they saw the benefits of the program,” Goldsmith says. “A student whose sole interest is to improve the course is very different from one who’s receiving a grade. That said, we train students on how to give feedback most effectively to faculty.”
Similar consulting programs are gaining steam across the higher education landscape, at least regionally, says Akshaye Dhawan, an associate professor of computer science and a co-director of the Ursinus Teaching and Learning Institute.
Bryn Mawr College is the only Pennsylvania college that has had a consultant program longer than Ursinus, he says, and at a recent conference of the Pennsylvania Consortium of the Liberal Arts, Dhawan noted that many schools are working toward establishing similar programs.
“I think it says something about our culture here at Ursinus that a faculty member considers a student a peer in a sense that they are receptive to this kind of feedback,” Dhawan says. “Our consultants are very interested in creating a better classroom for other students. They want certain conversations to happen in the classroom. They want a chance to discuss difficult topics.”
Dhawan says the students bring a different perspective of the classroom “because they are not standing at the front like the professor. They get to focus on the behavior and the dynamics that play out in the classroom.”
Susanna Throop, an associate professor of history and a former co-director of the Teaching and Learning Institute, says that perspective is indispensable.
“No one else on campus works as closely with faculty as the student consultants do,” Throop says. “They’re talking with their faculty partner in a confidential way, and in a way that their faculty partner hasn’t been able to speak to anyone about their teaching. That was my experience, to have a student who is intelligent and perceptive, and who took amazing observation notes and showed up every week to have thoughtful, empathetic, constructive discussions with me.”
It’s beneficial to students, too, as the consultants say they’ve become better learners and critical thinkers by participating.
“Since I help professors come up with ways to improve their teaching and even consult on what activities would work better for students, I am more appreciative of the time professors put into their work,” says Mary Atta-Dakwa ’18.
Diane Skorina, director of research for teaching and learning services in library and information technology, and a co-director of the Teaching and Learning Institute, says it’s a unique strength of smaller schools to have a program like this.
“At Ursinus in particular, it is the number one reason students want to do it — to work even closer with faculty,” she says.
“These skills are transferable,” Dhawan adds. “Our consultants have commented that they didn’t realize how these skills would be useful after graduation. When a student is working with a faculty member, it is parallel to many real-world jobs where you have to give feedback to upper management. I think the Ursinus consultants are finding how to manage that much earlier in their careers.” —By Ed Moorhouse