Curriculum

How Students Can Shape the Design of Their Courses

January 11, 2018

Kelvin Ma
Students at the Olin College of Engineering sort through consumer products in a materials-science course. At Olin, which has been at the fore of student-led course design, small groups of students choose a topic and act as teachers, creating and running the class with the support of two professors.

The University of Dayton’s "Principles of Oral Communication" seems like the kind of course that few would naturally be excited to take — or teach.

For students, it’s one more requirement to slog through on the way to graduation. For professors, it’s an off-the-shelf course meant to run the same way regardless of who’s teaching it.

But when the communication department was developing the course it incorporated student feedback, which increased the level of buy-in from both sides of the lectern.

That was just one benefit of including students in course design, professors at Dayton and other colleges have discovered. The practice can also help students reflect on their learning and provide professors with fresh ideas for exploring a topic they may have been teaching for years.

To test out new approaches for the oral-communications course, professors at Dayton taught three versions of a pilot so that they could get input on more options, said Joe Valenzano, the department chair. Students in the pilot provided a reaction to every reading, shared their thoughts about teaching in a midyear feedback session, and sat for exit interviews.

What did the professors learn? Each version of the pilot used different materials, but student feedback indicated that none of them were quite right. As a result, the department ended up adapting the most well-liked book to use in the course.

Input from students also helped determine which assignments would be used. And their take on "interteaching," a form of group-work that Mr. Valenzano used in his section of the pilot, led to the technique being used in the full course, but not as frequently.

Ultimately, the design of the new course "was driven by student feedback," said Mr. Valenzano, an associate professor. "If you’re not paying attention to their reactions," he says, "you’re not teaching for learning."

Student input collected in an open-ended survey has continued to shape the course — so much that it has never been taught in quite the same way two semesters in a row, Mr. Valenzano said. "Principles of Oral Communication," he said, has become a "living course."

Formal Input

Dayton is not alone in seeing the benefits of student input on course design. Some colleges have even formalized processes that allow students to substantively shape their courses.

Bates College offers a course in which professors and students work to design or redesign a course during its five-week "short term" at the end of the academic year.

Amy Bradfield Douglass, a professor of psychology, taught one several years ago to inform an overhaul of her introductory statistics course.

Statistics is intuitive and fun for some students, but it can be a difficult subject for others. Ms. Douglass, who had taught statistics nearly every semester for more than a decade, thought the perspectives of those in the second group would be most helpful. "I wanted students who’d taken it specifically with me," she said, "who didn’t like it, and who were vocal about it."

The students told Ms. Douglass that they hated the textbook and didn’t use it. The professor was skeptical at first, so she surveyed other students who’d taken the class. It turned out this view was widespread. "Why am I making them spend $130 for something they never use?" the professor wondered. So she stopped using any textbook in the course.

Feedback from the students also persuaded Ms. Douglass to give quizzes and tests on Fridays, which provided students with more opportunity to ask for help and prepare. And it led her to stop doing hand calculations in class. Instead, Ms. Douglass recorded herself doing them so that students could watch multiple times if they were confused — and breeze through if they already understood. As a bonus, Ms. Douglass has found that having students watch the calculations on their own time "allows me to do more interesting things in class." The process, she adds, seemed to make students who had difficulty with statistics more comfortable with it.

At Olin College of Engineering, there are several avenues for students to participate in course design, says Robert Martello, associate dean for curriculum and academic programs. As the experimental college was getting off of the ground, "we realized right away this is going to be one of the things that defines Olin," Mr. Martello says.

Many professors at Olin regularly solicit student feedback during their courses, says Mr. Martello, who is also a professor of the history of science and technology. That could mean polling students, for instance, or holding short discussions. And when they create a new course or significantly revise an existing one, Olin professors often apply for summer innovation grants, which include money to hire student workers.

Olin also offers "student-led courses," which evolved out of a paradox — students’ desire to take independent study in groups, Mr. Martello says. A small group of students choose a topic and act as teachers, creating and running the class with the support of two professors, one with pedagogical chops and the other subject-matter expertise. Students who take the class ultimately earn credit from professors, not the students teaching it — but the student leaders do all of the work of teaching under faculty supervision.

Contributing to course design helps students, who examine their learning more closely than they otherwise might, Mr. Martello says. Professors, for their part, are better able to achieve their teaching goals when students have a clear sense of what they are. They also benefit, Mr. Martello says, from the new ideas that students bring.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.