Professors Call on Silent Partner to Improve Classrooms

Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

Lok C. Lew Yan Voon, assistant professor of physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, confers with Student Observer Heather Maisey.

WORCESTER, Mass. - If a teacher has a problem in the classroom, who can help? Wouldn't it be great if an unbiased student could silently observe, then offer suggestions? Someone handpicked for level-headedness and good scholarship. Someone who could be a fly on the wall with human perception. Someone who could, to paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, offer the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Student Observers offer that gift. These silent partners can help teachers see their classrooms from a new perspective.

"I started pilot testing this program two years ago," says Judith E. Miller, director of WPI's Center for Educational Development. "The faculty that have used it have all been very positive about it. I can understand how some faculty members might be a little uncomfortable about a student critique. But it really is just a look at how a student sees things. It could be as simple as taking notes so a teacher can see what a student comes away with after a class."

Options for the Student Observer Program include:

  • Faux Student: The Observer sits in on a class and takes notes as if he or she was a member of the class. The teacher gets a copy of the notes and any additional feedback requested.

  • Video Observer: The Observer videotapes the class. The teacher has the option of viewing the tape with or without the Observer present.

  • Chronological Observation: The Observer records the order of the events of the class (such as topic changes, amount of time spent on questioning, board work, group discussion, etc.)

  • Student Survey: A questionnaire is distributed to the class to provide the teacher with feedback. The survey can be devised with the help of the instructor or can be done by the Observer alone.

"Observers always meet in advance with the faculty member to find out what they want to know," Miller says.

Lok C. Lew Yan Voon, assistant professor of physics, wanted a completely disinterested observer. His Student Observer complied by videotaping the class and allowing the professor to critique himself.

"I think it's a good idea for someone to observe your teaching from as many perspectives as possible," explains Lew Yan Voon. "I'd never had anybody tape my lectures, and it was definitely useful. Not only can I subsequently observe myself teach, but I can also carefully study how the students reacted to various situations. With this tape, I can see the whole session from the students' perspective, especially from the back of the room. I can ask myself afterward, 'Can they visually follow when I switch between the blackboard and the overhead projector?' for example. It's what you might expect to hear from students who are already in the class, but sometimes they are shy."

Student Observer Heather Maisey isn't shy, but neither is she heavy-handed.

"The whole program focuses on being completely objective and letting the professor decide for himself or herself what may need improving," says Maisey, a sophomore biotechnology major from Oneida, N.Y. "I'm not there to say you're a terrible or an excellent teacher. I am really just a mirror to let them see what they are doing."

The program may be especially helpful for a new professor or one teaching a new course.

"This is my first time as an adjunct and first time teaching in this discipline," says Juan Chaves, an adjunct instructor in the Department of Management, who had taught mechanical engineering since 1986. "I thought it was a good opportunity to have someone look at my students and see what they do. My Observer jotted down where students sat and wrote down some of their behaviors. Then we sat down and talked about this. The input to me was important because the Observer wrote down things I didn't have the opportunity to observe closely."

Student Observer is just one service offered by WPI's Center for Educational Development. It can be used alone or as part of a more comprehensive program for teaching improvement. Miller, who is also a professor of biology and biotechnology, offers her own expertise as a classroom observer, for example. In addition, new faculty members can join a mentoring program, and Food for Thought programs, held throughout the year, allow teachers to share research and experience. The support will increase July 1 when the program, now to be called the Center for Educational Development, Technology and Assessment, expands with more funding and more responsibilities.

WPI professors, like their peers at other colleges and universities, receive end-of-term feedback on student assessment forms. But Miller says the Student Observer Program offers a different kind of review.

"People taking a class are getting graded, so there's a whole bunch of baggage that goes with that," Miller points out. "This critique isn't about the content of the class, but rather the teaching behaviors. Student Observers are looking at the classroom from a different context. They aren't there to learn a subject or get a good grade. They are there to help the teacher improve."

The program offers professors a unique opportunity to learn how their class stacks up.

"It's done by a person who really has nothing to lose," Chaves says. "I used the program to give me a chance to see what it feels like to be on the other side. I think every professor ought to have a chance to see that."

For more information, contact Miller at 508-831-5707 or e-mail jmiller@wpi.edu.