by Lawrence Hamer, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs
For parents, academic quality might mean a school’s reputation or national ranking. For faculty, it could mean the degree to which a university is a thought-leader. Students Affairs might look at students’ growth and development, while legislators may think of productivity and efficiency.
But what about the students themselves? How do they define a “good” class?
In the fall of 2010, Academic Affairs (with Enrollment Management and Marketing and Institutional Research and Market Analytics) decided to find an answer to that question through a series of focus groups — 17 in all, capturing the options of 92 students from LAS, Commerce, Education, CDM, and Communication.
As it turns out, we were gratified by what we heard: students like “a lot of learning” and an “easy A does not make a class good.” The students really want a “good” classroom experience, and they feel cheated if they get less than they expect. Overall, the professor controls quality, and DePaul students are in fact quite good at discerning whether a teacher is making an effort (or not), whether a teacher is motivated (or not), and whether a teacher is delivering top-notch, current “stuff” in the classroom (or not).
What “Good” Means to Students
Students participating in the focus groups were asked to talk about their five best and five worst course experiences. The researchers used these discussions to define multiple attributes that define “good.” The most often cited and most important attributes, highlighted here, are all under the control of the instructor:
1) Presentation style, including lecture style, enthusiasm, teaching methods, subject mastery, and communication ability. As one student said, “An engaging professor, who knows the subject and is excited about teaching, makes everything better.” Another posited the same idea from the opposite side of the argument: “If the professor doesn’t want to be here, why would I?”
2) Interaction with students, including the instructor’s respect for students, demeanor, approachability, and open-mindedness. One student praised a professor: “He made sure every student received the instruction that was needed to do well.” Another complained of a teacher: “He was hyper-critical of our opinions, while at the same time being very opinionated himself.”
3) Learning expectations, including experiences that both challenge students and connect course-based learning to relevant outside-of-course experiences. A few positive student comments define “good” in this case: “Assignments need to be challenging but open enough for interpretation so I can challenge myself and bring new things to the table” and “What do I get out of this? I want practical knowledge.”
4) Real-world experience or the instructor’s ability to relate relevant professional experiences to the material covered in the course. As one participant said, “Teachers should be successful in their fields and provide testimonials from the outside world.”
5) Objective grading, including the perceived fairness of the instructor’s grading of assignments, the frequency of feedback, the lag between an assignment submission and feedback, and the offering of grading options that reflect different learning/testing styles. One participant praised a teacher for having a “grading system in place that reflected what we actually learned” while another complained about classes in which students were “flying blind without feedback.” Overall, the students’ comments suggested that receiving a good grade is the likely result of a good course experience because a “good” class raises the students’ level of engagement and their motivation to learn.
6) Organization skills, including setting clear learning goals, having a clear syllabus, and having an effective flow to a class. One student captured this attribute: “When class time is well used and planned, students get the most out of it.”
7) Technology usage to support the students’ learning experience, including Blackboard (D2L) and electronic media in the classroom and timely email correspondence. One student praised an instructor for his “strong technological skills.”
While a relatively small portion of our student population participated in the focus groups, the consistency of their ideas and comments speaks to the credibility and universality of the findings. The students’ perceptions of course quality are particularly relevant to strategic planning discussions, as each of our colleges looks for ways to enhance student learning.
Given how much DePaul values teaching, an understanding of the attributes of a “good” class can help instructors improve the design and delivery of their classes. In short, it’s the teachers’ jobs to make sure that the university is fulfilling its responsibility to each student.