Concern for the quality of undergraduate education and its graduates has been a recurring topic of conversation in business, government, and education. In studying the problem of quality in American colleges and universities, members of a national commission (National Institute of Education, 1984) determined that student involvement was the most important condition essential to the promotion of excellence. The more students are involved, the more intensely they engage in their education to make learning happen. Nursing leaders (Bevis & Murray, 1990; National League for Nursing, 1993) have also asserted the necessity of a transformed power relationship with students and teachers as colearners. The use of quality circles in the classroom is one means of achieving both increased student involvement and increased student power. As a technique of student empowerment, quality circles involve groups of students meeting regularly to identify, analyze, solve, and implement solutions to course-related problems (Nuhfer, 1992). Quality circles make students and teachers co-responsible for improving the quality of undergraduate education and the quality of student life. The purpose of this paper is to describe the implementation and effects of the use of a quality circle in an undergraduate nursing course.
Review of the Literature
The concept of quality control (Q-C) circles was developed in Japan in 1949 for the purpose of having workers share with management the responsibility for locating and solving problems of coordination and productivity (Ouchi, 1981). W.E. Deming, the acknowledged father of the total quality management (TQM) movement, combined the concept of participatory management with skills needed to make sound judgments. This combination of skills training with participatory management techniques had the objective of motivating workers who have genuine input into, and control of, their working environment to achieve excellence (Ouchi, 1981).
Quality circles (the word "control" was dropped because of the connotation) have been modified and applied to a variety of organizations in the United States in the last 15 years (Angelo & Cross, 1993; 0*Neil, Harwood, & Osif, 1993). Dumaine (1994) asserted that quality circles, with their emphasis on solving problems of productivity and quality, provided incremental gains in productivity for business and industry. Quality circles have also been used in health care to improve patient care and to increase nurse empowerment (O'Brien & McHugh, 1994; Turtle, 1996; and Massaro, et al. 1996).
Interest in quality circles spread to higher education in the 1980s, with some initial application in the classroom (Heller & Santola, 1986; Kogut, 1984). Much broader continuing use has been found in administrative areas as a successful method of problem solving (Simmons & Kahn, 1990; Yudof & Busch-Vishniac, 1996). As the discussion of quality in higher education began to include the increased participation and ownership of students in the learning process, the use of quality circles in the classroom has reemerged (Angelo &Cross, 1993; Nicoli & Butler, 1996; Nuhfer, 1992). This empowerment technique continues the emphasis on quality and productivity. Use of the technique also involves sharing of power between faculty and students. The concept of quality circles in the classroom is embedded in the theory of emancipatory teaching espoused by Freiré (1993) wherein teachers and students are seen as colearners in the process of learning. This concept involves selecting a group of students to represent concerns of the class to faculty at regularly scheduled meetings (Cunningham, 1994). Quality circles are designed to improve the productivity of both faculty and students by focusing the attention of both on the quality of students' learning.
Application in the Classroom
Application of quality circles in the classroom involves selecting a group of students to represent concerns of the class to faculty at regularly scheduled meetings. The authors believed that the use of this technique would result in increased student communication and satisfaction with the learning experience, and would enable the faculty to identify and respond to problems and concerns as the course progressed. Therefore, the decision was made to conduct an exploratory project to determine the effects of the use of quality circles in a classroom situation.
The project was carried out in a third semester medical/surgical nursing course in which 40 students were enrolled. Several planning decisions were made prior to actually implementing the project. The authors determined that the quality circle team consisting of four students would be manageable and sufficiently large to represent the class adequately. As recommended by Nufer (1992), the group would be called the student management team (SMT). To enable the SMT to deal with class feedback in a timely manner, it would meet weekly immediately following class. The faculty would meet formally with the SMT every other week but would be available between scheduled meetings as needed. Finally, it was decided to randomly select SMT members from a group of volunteers; all enrolled students were to be encouraged to volunteer.
Early in the semester faculty provided an overview of the SMT concept and discussed its application in this particular class. They shared their vision of an improved climate of learning in which students would actively participate. Faculty allowed adequate time to answer all questions. Students who wished to volunteer were randomly selected and announced to the class. Both the team members and the class at large appeared interested in the SMT concept and were eager to begin.
The first meeting of the SMT was held the following week immediately following class. All team members and faculty were present. This first meeting was used to discuss ways in which the team could function and to provide certain operating guidelines. The students were enthusiastic and full of ideas. They developed a form for their classmates that included their phone numbers and asked for feedback. They requested a few minutes at the beginning of each class to conduct SMT "business" before the faculty arrived. The faculty agreed to this request,
The faculty used this first meeting to provide ground rules for the team. Students would not be held responsible for any negative feelings on the part of their classmates that they should be asked to communicate to the faculty. Issues would be limited to concerns with the course. The students expressed relief that they could communicate negative feelings from the class without fear of retribution from the faculty!
The Team at Work
The team worked smoothly from the start. At the bi-weekly meetings with the faculty, students brought issues and concerns from their classmates as well as positive comments. All issues were discussed by the entire team. Some could be resolved at once, with studente reporting back to their classmates at their next class session. Others were referred to the faculty for further discussion; these decisions were also reported back to the class. Other issues could not be resolved, but the reasons for nonresolution were also explained to the class.
The issues brought to the team were varied. Several students expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the syllabus. Many printing errors made the syllabus confusing and hard to follow. A more significant problem for the students involved mandatory homework assignments, which were to be turned in at the beginning of each class, but which were printed on the back of class outlines. Faculty agreed to review the assignments at the beginning of class and return them to students. Since nothing could be done to correct the printing, apologies were conveyed to the class.
Students felt overwhelmed by the amount of material to be covered. Faculty were able to reassure them that all important content would be addressed, but stressed the importance of continuing to do all outside reading assignments. Faculty also volunteered to be available for review sessions prior to tests if requested by the students.
Several students expressed frustration at the amount of class time the faculty allowed to be used for student "whining." They suggested that students be required to do their complaining after class. The faculty agreed to try to be sensitive to this issue, but suggested that the team members discuss the issue with the class as a whole to facilitate a satisfactory resolution to the problem. Although reluctant at first, team members agreed to do so.
Many students were upset by two recent schedule changes related to a concurrent nursing course and to the weather. A test date had been changed to accommodate the complaints of a few vocal students, and many class members were angry at the change. The faculty referred the students to the appropriate faculty member for discussion of this issue. The change related to the weather was resolved when the students were presented with several options for makeup. The students chose the option of coming to a makeup class the next week.
At the end of the semester, students were asked to identify their perceptions of the technique and its impact on the course. Benefits identified by the students included an increased sense of ownership of the course and a positive perception of faculty concern with their learning. In general, students expressed a high level of satisfaction with both the course and with their mastery of course content. Using a four-point scale, students rated the following course components as good or excellent: course content (91%), teste (83%), grading (94%). The only negative comments came from four students, who stated that they received inadequate feedback from the student management team.
From a faculty perspective, the use of the SMT technique was a positive and rewarding experience. The SMT provided a vehicle for students to air concerns related to the course and to receive timely feedback. Through regularly scheduled meetings to discuss concerns and possible solutions, faculty gained more complete and detailed information, which allowed them to respond to problems as the course progressed. This was a great improvement over the usual end-ofcourse evaluation, which does not allow for an ongoing response. As studente participated more in the management of the course, the faculty found ownership of the course shifting; what began as their (the faculty's) course ended as our (the students' and faculty's) course. The use of the SMT also provided opportunities for members of the team to develop leadership skills as they functioned as both advocates and liaisons for the class. Faculty benefited by having comprehensive feedback from students throughout the semester upon which to base changes to improve teaching. They gained the advantage of access to several pairs of ears and eyes and approaches to problem solving.
Did the quality of learning improve? Faculty defined mastery of content as a grade of "C" or better in the course. Although there was no significant difference between the class means for the final grade of this class and the class of the preceding semester, this was one of the few semesters in which every student passed the course. Equally important was the improved quality of the learning community. Positive student comments included "respect given by professors"; "instructor believed in us"; "availability"; and "good instructors, fair grading." The use of quality circles provided a means of focusing on teacher-student interactions and improving student learning. Based upon the success of this experience, the faculty plan to incorporate the use of student management teams in future courses.
Although both students and faculty expressed satisfaction with the SMT experience, some suggestions for improvement of the use of this method in the classroom can be made.
A longer and more thorough orientation to the process may be helpful. Although we used the first meeting to discuss the concept of SMT with the students, we believed that this period of orientation could have been more in-depth. The following semester we provided handouts of articles explaining the quality circle concept and discussed these with the team. Faculty may find it helpful to be more visible in the process. We stayed in the background and allowed the SMT to do all of the communication with the class. In the future, we would probably refer more to the team during class and encourage students to use the team to communicate more of their concerns.
The use of student management teams does take extra time and preparation. Also, students are not likely to use the technique unless the process is explained adequately and a user-friendly method for communicating among students is developed. Therefore, faculty who wish to use this technique must be willing to invest the time and energy required if a positive outcome is to be achieved.
Faculty need to be aware that some students who volunteer for a leadership team have not yet developed the groupwork skills needed for this technique. When this problem is identified, the faculty may need to provide additional training time. For this technique to be effective, faculty must be flexible and open to student perceptions, observations, and recommendations. In other words, they must be willing to give up some power (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Although this may be threatening to some faculty, the improvement in the quality of student learning far outweighs the personal risk.
Finally, a more formal means of assessment would be helpful to support faculty evaluation of course improvement and to refine related concepts. A facultydesigned assessment tool would focus on specific items including course satisfaction, mastery of content, communication, and learning climate. We would further suggest including the SMT in the development of the assessment tool to obtain an enriched student perspective. The process of tool development may also help with concept refinement.
While quality circles have long been used in business and academic administration settings, their use in classroom instruction has been limited. This paper bas demonstrated the positive learning outcomes that can be achieved when they are used to facilitate the learning experience of students in a classroom setting. These learning outcomes include improved student mastery of course content, increased faculty and student communication, and increased student satisfaction with course management. The authors strongly encourage other faculty to explore the use of this teaching/learning technique as a means of enriching the classroom experience of their students and improving learning outcomes.
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