Course design: 7 ways I engaged my students in the process

“Learner centered” is the new buzz phrase in education. Some recent research I did revealed that not only are learner-centered approaches to teaching part of 21st century teaching, but so is the practice of engaging learners in course design and outcomes. This seems to be a bit of a contentious issue. How do learners know what their outcomes should be? It’s a good question.

Rather than addressing the theoretical debate, I decided to try an experiment this semester. One of my courses this semester is on Effective Learning. It focuses on metacognition, making students aware of themselves as learners, their learning styles, improving study habits and ultimately, improving their performance. I thought this would be an optimal environment to test a learner centered approach.

The questions that guided my teaching experiment were:

  • How can I legitimately engage students in course design?
  • How can I do this without being accused of shirking my responsibilities as an instructor?
  • How do I ensure that the class doesn’t try to take over from me completely and hijack the entire course?

Here’s what I did:

  1. Set boundaries. Some aspects of the course design were negotiable and others were not. I decided what was going to be negotiated and set clear parameters.
  2. Engaged with the students in dialogue. In class we talked about what aspects of the course could be negotiated and which could not. I shared with them how they would be engaged in the process and what it would mean for them.
  3. Had the students engage in a dialogue with one another. After I talked with them, I gave them some time to talk amongst themselves without input from me. After they talked with each other, we would regroup and they would share what they talked about.
  4. Kept the process transparent. Students’ thoughts and input were all shared. Disagreements were addressed and points were negotiated.
  5. Voted. In cases where students disagreed on how they wanted to proceed, we voted. The majority ruled. This was effective in deciding, for example, what date the students would give their final presentations in class. Students votes reflected their desires to have the presentations on a date that was convenient for all of them. Since the presentations happen at the end of the semester, when everyone is busy, we were unable to achieve consensus on the date. So we voted by a show of hands. That way, students could see for themselves what the majority had decided.
  6. Focussed on developing relationships. I took advantage of the small class size by focussing on getting to know each student and also having them develop relationships with each other, as well as with me. 70% or more of class time was spent in group work or pair work. Students gave two presentations during the semester – one in pairs and another in small groups. Students were guided through a process where they exchanged contact information and were encouraged to connect with one another outside of class time. Within a few weeks, all the students knew each others names and began bonding. This built trust and cooperation.
  7. Increased the engagement as the course progressed. I began the course with a very traditional approach. The students received a course outline with specific information about what would be done and how it would be done. As the course progressed and relationships were developing, we were in a better position to negotiate on some aspects of the course.

Here are some of the ways I engaged my students in the course design process:

  • Course material. I decided what 90% of the course content would cover, including materials from the textbooks, as well as some outside sources. Students contributed videos and articles they found on line, using broad topics to guide them. The videos were posted on our Blackboard class site. Students reviewed the videos posted by their classmates and posted reflective comments about them. Both the posting of the videos and the reflective comments were assignments, each worth 1% of the final grade. As long as students contributed both their material and their personal feedback by the due date, they received credit for the assignment.
  • Due dates. Not all due dates were negotiable. Students chose the dates when they would present their final group project and have their final in-class test.
  • Exam content. Yup. You read that right. Students contributed some, but not all, of the questions for their final exam. I’ll talk about the process I used in a future blog post.

So far, the experiment seems to have been a success. I was pretty open with the students and let them know that the model of negotiated course design was new for me. Basically, I was learning as I went. Many times, I experienced some discomfort myself, not knowing how far we could or should go using a “distributed leadership” model. In some ways, I was still traditional. I teach in a traditional brick-and-mortar university, after all. In other ways, I think the amount of decision-making I allowed my students to engage in would boggle the minds of some of my colleagues, who might wonder if I let my students walk all over me.

The short answer is no. This was one of the few classes I’ve ever taught where students came to class on a regular basis, formed excellent relationships with one another, had a great deal of tolerance for one another. Did they try to hijack the course? Not at all. In fact – and this is purely subjective, of course – I would say that these students demonstrated more respect for me, as I muddled through this new way of teaching, than in courses where I have taken a authoritatively traditional stance. Interestingly, it’s one of the few university classes I’ve taught where I didn’t find students who tried to cheat, either. They were challenged to think beyond traditional learning roles, as they became collaborators in the learning process.

Would I try this again? Absolutely. It was a slightly unnerving experience and a very good challenge for me as an instructor. And I can honestly say that I’ve never had a more engaged, vibrant group of students.

Related post: How and why my students wrote their own final exam


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

2 Responses to Course design: 7 ways I engaged my students in the process

  1. Sandra Turner says:

    Thanks for this info Sarah. Always good reads. I discovered Cathy Moore’s action mapping post that might add to your pursuit of engaging learners.

    It’s geared towards elearning course development, but we are finding it quite useful in our onsite literacy program.

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