A Student Driven Approach
“Sometimes it seems my students have been either bored or frustrated by being given yet another course outline at the start of the term.”
By fourth year, the undergraduate students I teach are wise to the ways of university course design, presentation and evaluation. They have had some variety, by way of individual style, but for the most part the design, delivery and evaluation of courses has been similar from one department to another. Because of this, students are usually ready for the challenge and fun of designing their own course. In short, they are ready for something new, something which they can be responsible for and responsible to.
The opportunity to be in charge in the first few classes is in itself a positive learning experience. As senior students they have a sense of the material. I encourage them to consider issues about their learning; not only what specifically they would like to learn, but also, how they will learn it and how they learning will be evaluated. They realize quickly that these are tied directly together.
They do not enter this experience without starting points. As stated, the area of inquiry will not be new to them and I offer a provisional outline, as required by Senate, and set of guiding ideas which they are free to incorporate or reject. The final shape of the course will be, in the end, their doing. They are, therefore, committed to the content, the process and the evaluation of their learning. We deal with any mistakes and their consequences together as a class. The mistakes have proved to be fewer than I might make with my own course creation FOR them and the course highlights far surpass the highlights I might have provided. I have noted more positive peer pressure and peer support rather than the usual teacher-student conflicts and student competition. Classes seem to have a greater purpose and intimacy.
If no consensus or equanimity can be reached in shaping the course as a class, then it is best to turn to the fall back position of your initial design. It represents what you would have done anyway. In two tries with this student-driven approach, I have not had to fall back on my initial design and I believe the courses have been better than I might offer up on my own.
I have used this approach in classes of less than 25 students but this student-driven course design is possible with larger classes by eliciting student input at the first class. For example, offering index cards with questions such as, “Are there ideas or activities you would particularly like me to cover?” will allow you to gather information on students’ needs and interests. You can then adjust the course design, delivery and evaluation to meet those needs and interests. Certainly it makes more sense to ask the students for input at the beginning of the course rather than at the end through a course evaluation.