Don’t talk to Meriem Chida about a disconnect between academia and the “real world.” An assistant professor of apparel merchandising, she is determined that each of her courses be anchored by a problem that someone in the real world is trying to solve.
“I’m a strong advocate of bringing reality to the students,” she said. Instead of creating hypothetical challenges, she approaches working professionals and asks, ‘‘Is there a problem we can solve for you?”
Last semester, for instance, students in her fashion forecasting class researched fashion trends and then submitted handbag designs to Butler Bag, a Philadelphia company, for its 2010 season.
“Initially I thought, ‘Oh, I just want to design a bag,’” said Shainna Williams, 21, “but that’s not how fashion forecasting works.”
“I never thought we’d have to do so much research before we could start designing,” said Emily Spilker, 20.
That was the point, Chida said.
Chida, who joined the WSU faculty in August, has always worked with industry professionals but, when she arrived in Pullman, she realized geography was a problem. With the help of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, she set up the course so that students submitted work through an e-portfolio format. Everyone involved could post their critiques on a massive spreadsheet anchored to a rubric that Chida created in collaboration with CTLT and her industry partners.
With the travel issue resolved, Chida was able to recruit a high-powered group of industry partners. In addition to representatives from Butler Bag, students also were critiqued by forecasters working with the Doneger Group, the largest forecasting agency in the U.S.; Carlin Group International, a Paris-based agency with offices around the world; Patty Shapiro and Associates, with offices in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto; Fashion Snoops, an online forecasting service; Nordstrom; Q.V.C. home shopping network; and General Mills.
Chida said she was solely responsible for assigning student grades in the class, but the course was designed so that students got feedback from multiple people and multiple perspectives: not just industry professionals, but also from other faculty members and from their peers.
Not surprisingly, Chida said, the peer critiques were the most complimentary and the industry reviews were the most critical. (The faculty critiques, she said, tended to be in the middle.)
The top team in the fashion forecasting class
earned new Butler bags for their proposals for the
Philadelphia-based company. Team members
include Adrienne Duval, left, Shainna Williams and
Emily Spilker. (Photo by Becky Phillips, WSU
Theron DeRosier, a CTLT instructional designer who worked with Chida, said differences in the critiques are exactly what make them so valuable.
Instead of students receiving a grade from a single instructor, with no discussion, they receive layered feedback that — if it is based on a carefully constructed and community-validated rubric — the student can use to better evaluate her own work and how it relates to her future goals. In the best cases, it is no longer about the grade, but about how much better prepared the student is to move forward.
CTLT has been advocating this type of assessment as a “transformative grade book.” (See more ONLINE @ wsuctlt.wordpress.com and search “transformative”).
Chida said she was thrilled students got such rich feedback and authentic exposure to the fashion industry.
But, she said, there was also a portion of the class that found the experience frustrating and overwhelming.
“They either loved it or they hated it,” she said. But it’s not her job to only give students what they want, she said. She’s using student evaluations and course data to write a paper arguing that when faculty set high expectations and anchor their courses in real-world accountability, there is a tremendous payoff for students and their employers.
After working with industry from across North America last semester, this semester she’s sticking close to home. She’s still working on the particulars, but it looks like top students in her visual merchandising class might be helping Pullman shop owners give their window displays a makeover. And top students in the retail sales class most likely will be working with a Moscow shop owner to improve sales.
Whether or not students are able to transform local businesses, Chida said she hopes her courses will help students transform their own ideas about their capabilities and their career goals.
“I’m not in this business to break your spirit,” Chida said she tells her students. “I’m here to help you learn.”