Student Advisory Team

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By Gerry Hess from Gonzaga University School of Law

We can get formative feedback about our classes by talking informally with our students about their reactions to our teaching methods. A more structured way to gather feedback from our students is through a student advisory team (SAT) – a group of students who meet every other week with the teacher. The students’ role is to provide feedback to the teacher about their learning, comment on the effectiveness of particular instructional methods, and offer suggestions to improve the course. The teacher’s role is to listen to students’ feedback and to implement reasonable suggestions when appropriate.

When we initiate the SAT process in a course, we must decide how to respond to the students’ feedback. Several types of responses are appropriate: (1) implement reasonable suggestions during the course; (2) explore with the team alternatives that we are more comfortable implementing; (3) explain why we will not act on a particular student recommendation; and (4) decide to make changes the next time we teach the course. It is common for some team members to be skeptical about the SAT process until we respond to their suggestions. The best way to motivate team members is for the teacher to immediately implement a team’s suggestion.

Empirical research supports the value of SATs in legal education (Gerald F. Hess, Student Involvement in Improving Law Teaching and Learning, 67 UMKC Law Review 343 (1998)). Most team members report that their participation improved their attitude toward the course (98%), the teacher (94%), themselves as learners (82%), and law school in general (82%). In addition, most team members believe that the SAT process improved the course (94%), their learning (84%), and the teacher’s effectiveness (92%).

Despite the data confirming the benefits of SATs in law school, SATs are not appropriate for every teacher. Success of the SAT process depends in part on the teacher’s belief that students should share responsibility for course design and delivery with the teacher, that students can give accurate feedback on their learning and the effectiveness of teaching methods, and that they can provide useful suggestions for improvement. Even for teachers who hold these beliefs, SATs present significant challenges. The feedback is raw and honest – sometimes it is hard for the teacher to hear. The SAT is unlikely to succeed if the teacher is unwilling to implement reasonable student suggestions. The teacher must be willing to share control of the course with the students.

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O.K. Time for me to fess up. Although I have lots of experience using SATs in my courses, I have not used SATS in recent years. When I wrote about SATs 15 years ago, it was a pretty innovative idea. Now it seems like an old idea. But ideas should not be measured by words like “innovative” and “old.” Instead, the measure should be whether the idea was effective in improving teaching and learning. By that measure, SATs were effective for my students and me. It is time for me to think about using a Student Advisory Team next semester – or to find another way to get feedback from students regularly throughout the course.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning