Student Management Teams: Bridging the Gap Between Students and the Professor
Posted September 2, 2015
By Jordan Troisi
As a professor, do you ever have a course that, even with your best intentions, just doesn’t go as well as planned? You know, the one where you have problems communicating with students, get poor course evaluations, or have students who just don’t seem motivated?
It happens to all of us. Maybe with some classes more than others, but it happens to all of us from time to time.
The truth is, every group of students has its own dynamic, situated within a particular course, and sometimes it’s difficult to get a handle on that dynamic. Traditionally, professors wouldn’t get a full sense of what’s going on in this dynamic until the end of the semester when students submit their course evaluations (you guessed it, AFTER it’s already too late to do something about it).
But recent research has suggested a solution to this problem. The solution, first put forth by Mitch Handelsman (2012), is the use of student management teams (or SMTs).
About Student Management Teams
A SMT is a group of 3-5 currently enrolled students who work with the professor throughout the semester to monitor the course, transmit feedback, make recommendations, and help implement them. Basically, instead of having an evaluation of the professor at the end of the course, there is an ongoing feedback loop between the SMT (who represent all students in the class) and the professor. For additional information on implementing a SMT, see this guide that I’ve created.
I usually seek out a SMT by asking for volunteers about 4 weeks into a course, and then I have the team create and analyze (informally) an early-semester evaluation. The SMT tells me what they’ve seen in the early-semester evaluation, then we brainstorm ways to improve what’s happening in the class. For example, in the past, some students have expressed that they found my exams to be somewhat difficult, so we implemented a review session before the subsequent exams.
The ongoing feedback continues throughout the semester. I also routinely give the SMT 5 minutes of class time to talk with their classmates to see how the course is going. This can be especially helpful at important stages of the semester (e.g., before large assignments are due).
Benefits of SMTs
Recent evidence suggests that SMTs create a number of benefits for students. In one study, college students who were members of SMTs showed improved performance over the course of the semester, primarily due to their increase in course engagement as the semester went on (Troisi, 2014). Of course, this finding raises an ethical concern—students should have every opportunity to improve their performance, but only a finite amount of them can be on the SMT. With that said, explaining potential benefits of SMT membership to students is important (i.e., that students may perform better because of increased engagement). And also worth noting, I welcome all students in the class to attend SMT meetings with me if they wish.
There are many other potential benefits as well. In a second empirical study, all members of a college class with an embedded SMT demonstrated greater feelings of autonomy than students in a comparison class without a SMT (Troisi, 2015). Furthermore, based on my experience, it’s fun to get to know members of a SMT on a more personal level. These students also feel good for taking on a bigger responsibility and role within the class. And, what is more, they often come up with good ideas that might not occur to the professor (this has happened to me many times).
The use of a SMT can also prevent or mitigate difficulties that may arise in a classroom. Students are much less likely to feel that their voice isn’t being heard if they can go to the SMT with concerns about their class.
For example, I once made a grading calculation error on Blackboard, which I corrected, but students were still a bit confused because it appeared as though they had some points “taken away.” I tried to explain the circumstances, but they seemed frustrated yet uncomfortable with airing their concerns with me directly. The SMT took over, gathering student opinions and concerns and communicating them to me, thereby allowing me to address them to everyone’s satisfaction.
So, if you’ve got a course that just doesn’t quite go the way you want it to, try using a SMT. They’re good for all kinds of circumstances: trying your hand at a brand new course, revamping a course that isn’t going well, or even just to reinvigorate a course you’ve taught dozens of times.
And who knows, using a SMT might just boost your student evaluations a little bit as well.
Jordan D. Troisi is an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: the University of the South, a liberal arts college in rural Tennessee. His teaching interests merge with his scholarly interest on topics related to interpersonal relationships; he researches and speaks regularly on how relational processes may facilitate learning in the college setting. He is an active member of The Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Division 2), where he serves as the Chair of its Early Career Psychologists Committee, and as a Consulting Editor for the Division’s flagship journal, Teaching of Psychology.