Talk About Teaching

Using Quality Circles to Master the Classroom

by Michael Useem

You have received the computer-generated scores for the two courses that just finished. Students have scored your performance on a scale from 1 for lousy to 5 for terrific, and you are delighted to see that for one course your rating is 4.1, well above average for the school. Great news! Then you see the rating for the other course: 3.2, well below the average. Oh-no!

In search of excellence, you turn to the students' written comments on the 4.1 course, hoping to learn the secret of your success. Helpful hints are found here, but only hints. "Great lecturer," says one. "Really held my attention," comments another. You ask to see the students' comments received by a colleague who this year received a 4.9 and last year won a teaching prize. Not really much help here, either. The comments are memorable: "Bob is god," gushes one, but not the stuff of a learning curve.

Maybe the students' comments for your 3.2 course, you think, will prove more substantive since they will surely have caught your errors. You think you can takeand take something fromthe bad news. That is usually a serious mis-estimate. The main effect of such comments"this is one of the worst courses I've ever taken"is to ruin the whole day, even the week. And you've learned nothing constructive.

Japanese companies long-ago evolved a device for learning what's troubling line workers, and what they would do to improve production. Commonly known as the quality circle, it fills in the blanks left by the numerical ratings. The device also sends a signal that you and the firm encourage continuous improvement, the signature of a "learning organization."

Many American companies have adopted this practice as well. A recent survey of U.S. firms reveals that nearly half have instituted quality circles, and more than a quarter use them with at least half of their employees. Quality circles and their first cousinsfocus groups and 360-degree feedback exercises (in which an individual receives detailed assessments from subordinates, peers, and bosses)are now widely used in the private sector, but their university inroads have been modest.

For the past five years, I have instituted quality circles in all of my courses except doctoral seminars. The courses have included a College introductory course with 110 students, an upper-division undergraduate class with 40, a first-year MBA course with 65, and an executive MBA class with 95. Here's how they work.

On the first day of the course, I describe the purpose of the quality circle (to acquire continuous feedback for improving the course now and redesigning it for next year) and ask for three volunteers. We then meet every other week throughout the term. The time burden is modest: the discussions are limited to 30 minutes, and they usually follow a class meeting so travel time is minimal. The quality circle, its purpose, and the meeting schedule are also described in the syllabus.

When the quality circle first meets, I note that giving and getting feedback are learned skills on both sides, and that we will have to self-consciously work to get it right. If the students make me feel defensive, I will not get their message. At the same time, if I'm too closed, I will not get it either.

I announce the student volunteers to the entire class at our next meeting, suggesting that complaints can be safely channeled through them. QC members often take the initiative to sound out their class-mates before and after class. Several have even e-mailed all of their fellow students just before a QC meeting to take complete stock.

When we meet, I provide the quality circle members with an excerpt of the course syllabus covering the past two weeks. Which topics, readings, and cases, I ask, worked, and which didn't and why? Some topics are not well connected with the thrust of the course, I learn. Some readings are too old and too boring. On the flip side, some worked extremely well, clearly "keepers" for the following year.

What annoying tendencies, I also ask, are vexing the class. Among the answers I have received: failure to call on students in the corners of the classroom, the occasional mistake of repeating myself, insufficient clarity on the main points of a topic presented, and failure to summarize the day's key lessons. The constructive criticisms are the stuff of a learning curve that my numerical ratings and written comments had never before provided.

The hardest step, but one I also strongly recommend, is to have the quality circle members report briefly to the entire class at the next course meeting. This requires that you stand at the front of the room while your mistakes are publicly described. Your strengths also come out in the QC discussion, but in my experience students are often reluctant to offer much overt praise in front of the entire class for fear of classmate censure. After the QC members have finished their report, which only requires 2 or 3 minutes, I then offer my own assessment and report what changes I am makingor not making in response to their suggestions.

Participants in my executive MBA course are mid-career managers who are already making a living by giving and receiving feedback. Confirming that effective information sharing is a learned skill, I have exited from several quality circle meetings with them thinking they had found little wrong with the course. It was only on the way home that evening when I realized that their carefully phrased suggestions had masked a far-reaching critique of my performance.

Here is a summary of the main steps to operate a quality circle for mastering the classroom:

  1. Three volunteers are requested on the first class day.

  2. Preschedule frequent but short meetings in the syllabus (every other week for 30 minutes).

  3. Announce QC members to the class once the QC is formed and before each QC meeting.

  4. Ask QC members to canvass students for feedback before QC meeting (e-mail is useful here).

  5. Present copies of the syllabus or excerpts from it to QC members at the start of meetings.

  6. Review how to give and receive feedback at the first meeting.

  7. Focus discussion on:
    classroom ecology
    course readings
    problematic students
    cases & exercises
    evaluation & grading
    course topics
    your communication
    course assignments
    clarity of instructions
    classroom culture
    your movement
    exams and projects

  8. At the next course meeting, QC members and you make brief reports on feedback & actions.

  9. Supplement QC meetings with frequent informal discussions or canvassing of QC members.

  10. Use the final QC meeting to review the course & syllabus to revise for next year.

Dr. Useem is Professor of Management in the Wharton School and Professor of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

The Talk About Teaching series is a joint project of the Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences.


Volume 43 Number 5
September 24, 1996

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