How to Set Up a Class Representative Program in Your Classroom
Dr. Heather Addy, PhD
Formative feedback is an intentional, voluntary, developmental strategy for instructors to receive feedback about their teaching with the goal of better understanding and improving student learning.
How to recruit class representatives
I post an announcement in class for the first week of classes, and also an announcement as a News item on D2L, indicating: • duties and time commitment involved (i.e., meet with me once per week for ~30-40 min to discuss all aspects of the course; class reps bring forward their own concerns as well as those of other students) • what interested students should do (i.e. e-mail me with their class schedule, or with a list of what days/times during the week they are available).
How to decide and schedule meeting times
The day/time for the meeting is determined by what works best for the majority of students as well as for me, and also when a suitable meeting room is available (my office is too small for these meetings). There will always be some people that cannot make the meeting time; in the email I send out to the group about the first meeting, I explain how I set the meeting time and thank those people who can’t attend for their interest in being a class rep.
How to select the number of class representatives
Four or 5 for my smaller classes (of 60-100) and about 8-12 for the large first-year classes of ~400. Initially I worried about having too many class reps and would limit the number of students but soon found that there is always some attrition over the term. It is much better to have a larger group rather than a very small group: some of the most valuable discussions are those among the students themselves and if you have too few students (e.g. only 2 or 3), these discussions just don’t happen—the students feel more intimidated about speaking up if there is not safety in numbers. Also bear in mind that not all students can attend every meeting, due to other commitments or conflicts. I invite all of the students who are available at the meeting time, and have not had any trouble with having too large of a group.
What to do at the first meeting
Like a first class, the first class rep meeting is crucial to setting the tone for the term. • I start with introductions: each of us introduces her/himself, where we're from, major, year and some sort of "ice-breaker" e.g. the highlight of your summer. We repeat brief versions of these introductions (just name & major) over the next few meetings, since there are often new people joining, and it takes a while to learn names (at least for me!). • Next, I provide some background as to why I use class reps: e.g. unlike end-of-term surveys and USRIs, feedback from class reps helps me make changes while the course is running. I share my philosophy that it is not “my” course but “our” course and thus it is crucial to hear students’ perspective on the course.
- I explain their role, which is to provide student perspective on how the course is going, and that all aspects of the course are on the table (lectures; labs; assignments; exams e.g., after the midterm I will ask them whether the midterm accurately reflected the learning objectives, whether there was sufficient time, etc.).
- I emphasize that I really want their honest, constructive feedback and spend a bit of time telling them how to give constructive feedback (e.g. use of “I” statements). It is important to also let them know what their role does not include: e.g., they are not responsible for sharing their notes with students who miss class (this request comes up a lot in some terms since at least some class reps have their email addresses posted on D2L).
- I ask for permission to post their first names and email addresses on D2L, so that students can email them with issues to be brought up at the meeting. This is not a requirement: if some students do not want their email listed, that is fine but I have rarely had students indicate that it is not OK. I also ask if they are willing to stand up in class and be introduced as a group, so that the other students will know who the class reps are; I repeat this step a few times over the term. The class reps tell me that most of the input they get is from people they sit with in labs or class—including conversations around them that they overhear at the beginning or end of class—but sometimes people do seek them out.
- I ask if they have any questions about their role or any aspect of being a class rep. After answering the questions, I leave for ~5 minutes, explaining that sometimes students hesitate to provide constructive criticism if they feel that they are the only one with that concern. Giving them time to talk among themselves first means that when we do get into their concerns, the issues come from the group rather than from an individual student. Leaving the students alone also helps them gel as a group.
The two most important things about the first meeting are:
- to create an informal atmosphere that encourages constructive and honest feedback. I bring Timbits or cookies or some sort of snack (to this and to subsequent meetings) to reinforce the casual and collegial atmosphere;
- to plan how you will follow up in class. I make sure to spend a few minutes in the next class explaining that I met with the class reps, outlining their role and indicating how students can contact them. It’s important to update the class about what you discussed with the class reps, especially if there are any changes that you're making in response to the discussions (even little things like pace of lectures). Students have told me that just knowing I meet and discuss issues with the reps makes them feel that there is a better atmosphere and better communication in the class. You need to report back regularly about the class rep meetings, but this first report is perhaps the most critical.
How much time does it take for the weekly meetings?
The first meeting takes the longest, and can be about 45-50 minutes; subsequent meetings are generally 30-40 minutes at most, depending on the topics being discussed. Later in the term, when the issues that the students raise have been discussed and settled (e.g. the pace of class), the meetings are often shorter, perhaps 15-20 minutes; however, these meetings are often when students ask about bigger issues relating to their program overall or to the discipline.
Do you chair the meetings? Do you prepare an agenda?
I “chair” the meetings in that I start the meetings and wrap the discussion up as well as pose questions and ask for feedback, but prefer to use the term “facilitate” rather than “chair” as the atmosphere needs to be very informal and welcoming. I make notes of what the students say but make it very clear that I am not writing down who said what (and I show them this, early on). I generally have an agenda in my mind, in terms of what specific questions I will ask and/or specific topics that I would like to discuss, but I only jot these in my notebook rather than circulating an agenda—again, this choice is based on creating a relaxed/informal atmosphere. As for the first meeting, after welcoming everyone, I leave for ~5 minutes so they can talk among themselves.
Are there questions that guide these discussions?
In my experience, it is important to have some planned questions to get the discussion started Some of these are specific questions e.g. How did you feel about the amount of time allocated for the team assignment last class? But many of the questions are very open ended, such as the ones I use to start most meetings (What is going well? What is not working so well?). I have also found, at least early in the term, that when there are lulls in the discussion I need to prompt the students by asking questions such as What other concerns or suggestions do you have? This encouragement seems necessary at least at first, until they become more comfortable offering their feedback.
How do you respond to student suggestions that are not practical/possible for your course?
In my experience, students generally become comfortable offering constructive criticism when they see that I will listen and consider what they are saying. I have hardly ever had anyone who was confrontational or rude, and I try to listen and not be defensive. If they are critical of something that I am not willing to change (e.g. late policies for lab assignments), I will listen to their concerns and then explain the rationale for the policy. For such topics, I will often say that I will think it over and get back to them at the next meeting; even if I don’t make the change, they know that their views were heard and considered. I've also found it effective to ask them if there are alternatives that they can think of for the policy that would work for both them and me; often we have a good discussion and their suggestions have sometimes improved course procedures.
Heise, B., & Himes, D. (2010). The course council: an example of student-centred learning. Journal of Nursing Education, 49(6), 343-345.
Jeffs, C. & Piera, Y. (2016). Focus on formative feedback for teaching development: A guide. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://ucalgary.ca/taylorinstitute/resources/formative-feedback