New Resource for Faculty: Student Beta-Testers

Starting in the Fall 2018 semester, DTLT, the DKC, and the HCC are offering a new resource for faculty: Student Beta-Testers. These students have gone through training in metacognition, assignment design, and feedback techniques, as well as online learning, and are ready to “beta test” assignments or online courses. We ran a successful pilot during the 2017-18 academic year and are excited to bring it to the larger UMW community. If you are interested in working with Beta-Tester or have any other questions, please email us at dtlt@umw.edu.

My undergraduate degree is in English Studies, specializing in Professional Writing. It was a small program at the large university I attended, if you can even imagine the size of a highly-specialized English degree being offered at a French university. Because of the size of the program, we were a really tight community. We found ourselves in classes with upperclassmen as freshmen. Because of the unique work-study set up of the program, what classes you had to take and when was very regimental. It was also the mid-1990s when what it meant to be a professional writing (translator, copywriter, technical writer, journalist, etc) was changing rapidly. Students who were fresh off their work terms were noting how the classes hadn’t prepared them for the realities of their jobs. There was general dissatisfaction about the education was providing the students and how.

I loved the program, I loved the people, I loved the professors, and I loved to write. I also loved the school, where I was. I wanted to be successful, and I wanted my friends to be successful, too. So, I organized a meeting between the students in the program and the faculty to discuss our concerns with the program, as well as the limitations faculty were facing in a small program such as ours. That conversation initiated an overhaul of the curriculum, streamlining or revising certain required courses, jettisoning old courses that were no longer relevant, and adding new courses to curriculum.

Obviously, I believe that undergraduates can have important and profound ideas about their own educations (debates about student evals aside). One of the first things I wanted to do when I started at DTLT was to integrate more undergraduate students into our work with faculty. But how? How do we create an environment where students, DTLT staff, and faculty can work together productively to improve the teaching and learning here at UMW.

There were some big, well-funded examples at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, where students are embedded with faculty over the course of an academic year, working with them on course design, assignment design, and even observing their teaching. Other institutions, like Bucknell or Harvard, had students working with student and faculty, a kind of hybrid DKC/DTLT roll for them. Given our limited resources, I know I couldn’t do something at such a large scale here, but I knew I could do something.

I was always struck by the conversations I would overhear in the DKC when students come in for peer-tutoring help with their assignments. The students and tutors would often get caught in “stuck points” in trying to execute the assignment, and were left scratching their heads. One day, a colleague of mine on social media was lamenting that she couldn’t ask her students where they were getting stuck in the online course she was running. And that’s when it hit me: What if we could have students go through the process ahead of time and give feedback on these stuck points?

The ida for the Beta-Testers was born. I developed a 5-week asynchronous training for the Beta-Testers. There are “modules” on metacognition, assignment design, feedback, and online learning, as well as a practicum, where they would give me feedback on the Domain of One’s Own modules. I had to be mindful that each module needed to be completed in a week while the student was working, so in less than 10 hours. Much less, given the responsibilities they did have during their jobs.

Now, all I needed were students who were interested and willing. Oh, and not so insignificantly, money to compensate them for their work. Thankfully, my colleagues Martha Burtis (Director of the DKC) and Cartland Berge (Building Manager of the HCC and supervisor for the desk aides in the building) came through with an idea: why not train willing DKC tutors and desk aides and make it a part of their job? It was perfect.

Six students volunteered to be the first Beta-Testers. While most of the training was asynchronous, done while they were working at the InfoDesk or DKC, we did end up meeting twice during the process. At the first meeting, when I asked them why they volunteered to do this, they all answered that one reason was because they wanted to give back to the institution, to improve it for future students. This is when I knew the program was going to be a success.

We used Slack to have discussions about the readings and Google Docs to collaboratively develop a kind of assessment guide for giving feedback to faculty. The timing of the training was a little strange, straddling the end of the fall semester and picking up at the beginning of the spring. They gave me both valuable feedback on the module and on the training itself.

We worked with a few faculty, and got such positive feedback, we decided that we would make the training available to all DKC tutors and HCC desk aides. Four of our original Beta-Testers are back in the fall and immediately able to work with faculty. We are also open to ideas how else the Beta-Testers can work with faculty, the DKC, and DTLT.

Again, if you are interested in working with Beta-Tester, please email us at dtlt@umw.edu.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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