New pilot program enhances academic experience by giving students a voice

August 13, 2021 by Eran Vijayakumar

Over the past year, Assistant Professors Liza Bolton, Samantha-Jo Caetano and Nathalie Moon started a pilot student representative program to improve students’ academic and teaching experience. Their innovative approach gave 1,800 undergrad students in various statistics courses the chance to shape their own learning experience.

To give students a voice, the professors selected student representatives across four undergrad statistics courses by lottery. Student reps collected feedback from their classmates on a regular basis and met twice throughout the term with course instructors to report back.

Meeting regularly, allowed instructors to hear students‘ ideas and concerns, which is especially challenging in large classes with hundreds of participants. It was also an opportunity to respond to feedback and improve in-class learning and teaching in a timely manner – a benefit course evaluations at the end of a term can’t provide.  

“By the time you get to read course evaluations, your students are already long gone. They've flown the nest,” says Bolton. “Sometimes I get a course evaluation saying, ‘This course was pretty good, but I wish X or Y happened.’ That’s when I go, ‘That's a great idea. I wish I could have done this sooner.’”  

Bolton got the idea for the student rep program through a similar program she participated in at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

“I really benefited from that program, both as a student and when I was a professor there. It was great to be on both sides and see how effective it really was.”  

Another innovative aspect of the program is the way student representatives were selected, using a lottery system. Interested students put their names forward and were selected at random for each section of the course. Research suggests that a lottery system can result in better leadership outcomes than a traditional election race, which can quickly become biased.  

“I was thoroughly blown away with how professional these student reps were. They showed true leadership skills,” says Bolton. “Especially this year, with instructors running a lot of courses online for the first time, getting feedback on how to improve through this program made a big difference.”  

Varun Lodaya, a third-year statistics student, decided to put his name forward and was drawn to be a student representative. Having participated in past leadership races, Lodaya thinks the lottery system is a good alternative to leadership contests and can result in greater diversity among student representatives.

Thomas Zhong, who is in his fourth and final year of the applied statistics specialist program, also joined the rep program. He thinks, the small class size and focused nature of his fourth-year course fostered collaboration among students and resulted in high levels of participation in the rep program.  

“Students would come to me with anonymous suggestions they wanted me to bring up with instructors. For example, there were suggestions about workload, grading and flexibilities around assignment formats,” Zhong says. “Students also asked for an extension for the Chinese New Year. Instructors were really, really glad for that type of feedback.”

Lodaya would like future student representatives to know that being a student rep is a rewarding and collaborative experience without the pressure that often comes with more traditional leadership positions: "If I get something wrong, I have the next meeting. I can email the professor later and say, ‘Hey, I forgot to mention this.’ There is no failure here.”

After seeing the success of this program during an especially challenging year for all students, the faculty team hopes to see the program adopted in more courses and become another tool for instructors to foster teaching excellence.  

"I think statistics education is important because I want to live in a world where people make better decisions with data and numbers for themselves and for each other," says Bolton. "That's why I care so much about teaching.”