A real education engages students: We deserve more
Most students agree that it is well-planned, dynamic, and demanding courses that make for an enjoyable semester. Therefore, it should be the goal of any university to ensure that the students receive well-planned courses with high-caliber teaching. The policies and practices of Carnegie Mellon University are merely reactive and fail to acknowledge that students are integral to developing good courses and promoting effective teaching; courses are insufficiently robust to achieve the goal.
In the Faculty Handbook, eleven ?Guidelines for Excellence in Teaching? offer suggestions to instructors, including: define the objectives of a course, plan meaningful activities, and provide out-of-class time to meet with students. The tenth guideline recommends the administration of course evaluations with public results. This has been formalized in Faculty Course Evaluations (FCEs), which have recently been converted to an entirely online format with as many as 55 questions. Some professors are worried that participation will plummet, reducing feedback.
More importantly, the FCEs are a passive instrument, regardless of format. By the time they have an effect, the course is over and the students? experiences are set in stone. There must be a mechanism by which students can be active participants in the evolution of their classes, during the semester.
One important step would be to require all instructors to administer in-class course evaluations after one-third of the semester has elapsed. Students would be familiar enough with their courses to make suggestions as to how the courses and professors could better serve them. By employing this tool earlier than mid-semester, professors could work sooner to adjust the class in order to meet the needs of their students.
Another progressive move would be to apply greater pressure on all departments to maintain potential Student Advisory Councils, which have proven themselves effective in gathering feedback. Presently, some SACs are vibrant, productive bodies, while others remain relatively dormant. Every department should be responsible for ensuring that SACs are healthy and active.
The University should support the creation of a Student Advisory Council with the specific function of helping the University foster a culture of student involvement in the improvement of the academic experience. This body could monitor the status of departmental SACs and could act as a support structure for students who want help approaching a problem with one or more of their courses. This council could help students develop concrete ideas and suggestions with which to approach a professor. If a student is uncomfortable approaching a professor, a member of the council could approach the professor on behalf of the student. The council might work in concert with the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence ? a wonderful resource for professors. Overall, this offers a more personal and readily available resource for students than approaching the dean of a college who is, most likely, already pressed for time.
Students at CMU are among the most capable and motivated in the country. Their performance and scholastic growth is, very often, proportional to the extent to which their professors engage them. It is too often that we are not challenged nor given the opportunity and support we desire. It is too often that we endure a class, rather than engage with it.