Engagement, the apparent and subtle communication dynamics between professors and their students, is a powerful component of productive teaching and learning. However, after the upheaval of the pandemic and months of virtual learning, educators have observed a concerning tendency for students to disconnect from classroom involvement and lose focus. Some education experts call this the “student disengagement crisis,” and it is sweeping classrooms and lecture halls.
Engagement and equity in higher education are at the center of a unique pilot program at Barnard’s Center for Engaged Pedagogy (CEP). It’s called the Student Learning Assessment Community (SLAC). The cornerstone of the pilot program puts students at the center of assessing and interpreting classroom dynamics.

Headshot of Melissa Wright
Melissa Wright, Interim Executive Director of CEP

“Students have insider knowledge being students,” said CEP’s interim executive director, Melissa Wright. “They can come into a classroom and facilitate a conversation with students when the professor is out of the room, to hear how things are going, what they need, and provide that feedback to the instructor. So the SLAC students coming out of this program will be equipped with assessment skills in addition to their insider knowledge as Barnard students to help facilitate and bridge a conversation between faculty and students.”

In July 2022, CEP ran four training sessions to prepare SLAC participants to pilot the program. The model pairs students with faculty. Each SLAC participant gathers relevant data about the student learning experience, with a particular focus on pre-course surveys, midsemester feedback, and transparent assignment design. 

“When taken together, these assessment methods will give instructors insight into classroom dynamics and factors impacting the student learning experience,” said Wright. “SLAC is also an important opportunity for the participating students to learn about assessment models, data collection, and data analysis.” 

The program adds a potent layer to traditional course evaluations. Research demonstrates the positive impact midterm assessments can have on end-of-term course evaluations, specifically on response rates. Wright worked with Access Barnard to recruit participants for the pilot project. Interest was very high among students of varied academic interests. Wright also collaborated with Madeline Miley '20, Institutional Research Assessment Analyst in the Office of Institutional Research & Assessment to facilitate sessions on assessment skills.

“Students want a chance to impact teaching culture,” said Wright. “Barnard has a group of students who truly see that their way to be engaged socially and politically and ethically is in the context we’re all in, which is teaching and education. I think they see that that is a place where they can have an impact.”   

One semester after graduating, Anastasia Velikovskaya ’21 went back to class. This time she was there to evaluate her professor and observe how students really felt about the course.

During the 2022 Fall semester, Anastasia Velikovskaya ’21 served as an executive coach for Rae Silver in her Neuroscience Frontiers seminar. It was an unofficial role, something Professor Silver wanted to try out. Similar but unrelated to the SLAC program, this was a student-centered approach. As an executive coach, Velikovskaya observed how students were responding to the course and, based on those observations and direct student feedback, made suggestions to Silver. Here, Velikovskaya shares her perspective on the experience.

Anastasia Velikovskaya ’21

You had just graduated, in October 2021. What was it like for you to be an executive coach in your former professor’s classroom?

I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t a current student in the class, and I didn’t have to worry about my grade or the impression I made. Instead, I was focused on providing candid reviews — something I would fear if I were a current student. 

Was the approach effective?

[After hearing] my observations, the professor tweaked her approach to instruction. For instance, when students told me they felt a little uncomfortable when they were called out by name to ask questions to guest presenters, I shared that with Professor Silver. In response, she stopped cold-calling students and printed out the questions they submitted for homework so that they could remember what they wanted to ask. These small changes started to add up, and students were happier with the way things were going, and they felt heard because their feedback was implemented.

Anastasia V and Rae Silver

What is your primary takeaway from the experience?

Executive coaches are able to observe every class and experience what the students experience. Most importantly, executive coaches will pick up on small ways the class can improve. Unlike course evaluations, executive coaching is a way of improving the student experience through actionable suggestions to the professor. 

                                                                                                                             ~MARIE DeNOIA ARONSOHN