Student-Faculty Course Design Partnerships (#PODHBCU)

I went to several great sessions at the joint conference of the POD Network and the HBCU Faculty Development Network in Atlanta last month.  Here’s a bit of information from one of them.

Productive Disruption: Partnering with Students and Faculty in Pedagogical Planning
Peter Felten, Elon University; Gretchen McKay, McDaniel College; Alison Cook-Sather, Bryn Mawr College

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about ways we can include students in our programming here at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. It occurred to me recently that almost all of our offerings (workshops, events, consultations, and so on) are designed for instructors. Does that perhaps reinforce the idea that teaching is something that is done to students? Since the responsibility for student learning rests with both faculty and students, perhaps we should have more conversations among students and teachers about improving the learning experience here at Vanderbilt. We’ve had a few such conversations in recent months, and they’ve been incredibly well-received.

With those thoughts in mind, I attended this session, in which colleagues from Elon University, McDaniel College, and Bryn Mawr College shared information about programs in which students and instructors partnered to enhance particular courses. I wasn’t that interested in the Bryn Mawr program, which partnered instructors with undergraduate teaching consultants who visited the instructors’ classes and met weekly with the instructors to share observations. It’s not that I don’t see value in having students as teaching consultants, but I’ve seen that model elsewhere and I was much more interested in the idea of partnering students with instructors during the course planning process. Fortunately for me, that’s exactly how the Elon and McDaniel programs were structured.

At Elon University, the teaching center recruits small teams of students to partner with faculty members to design (or redesign, I think) courses. Each faculty member works with two to four students through a backward design process during the semester before the target course is to be taught. Student participants are usually paid, but faculty participants are not. Teaching center staff play supporting roles in the design process. Everyone approaches the design process from a position of expertise: faculty know their disciplines and students know what it’s like to learn.

Peter Felten said that faculty often look at student work and wonder about the mistakes that students make. Students in these course design teams can help faculty understand the ways that novices in a discipline struggle with the material. Students also help faculty understand how course assignments might be misunderstood by students, and they suggest ways to clarify instructors’ expectations and motivations.

Faculty who participate gain a more concrete understanding of student learning, and students who participate appreciate the complexities of teaching and learning and start to approach their own education with a greater sense of autonomy. Peter said that students also develop deeper understanding of important disciplinary concepts–not the details of course content, but the core concepts since understanding such concepts is required for productive course design.

In contrast to the more established Elon program, the McDaniel program had only happened once. The programs were largely similar, but with a few structural differences. At McDaniel the course design process happens during their January term. Students get internship credit for participating, and faculty are paid small stipends. Perhaps most significantly, the McDaniel students go on to take the course in the subsequent spring semester.

Here at the Vanderbilt CFT, we’ve been thinking about proposing a Commons seminar taught by CFT staff. Vanderbilt Commons seminars are one-credit, spring-semester courses available only to first-year undergraduates. Beyond a focus on college learning, we weren’t sure how to structure a CFT-led Commons seminar, but perhaps these student-faculty course design programs could provide a good model. We might recruit three or four faculty members to work with the 15 students in our seminar to design (or redesign) fall courses. I really like the outcomes described by Peter Felten and colleagues: instructors gaining a deeper understanding of student learning and students developing more ownership over their own learning. Perhaps we could have similar outcomes here?

Image: “ris 11.16.09 – 1,” Laura Padgett, Flickr (CC)

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