Listen to your students

Letting students co-design their own curriculum is pedagogically sound and delivers real satisfaction, say advocates

December 17, 2015
Person cupping hand to ear

There aren’t many industries as competitive as the restaurant business. To thrive in this cut-throat world, you need to be exceptionally good, or you need a cunning ruse.

One such ploy, which has been trialled by a number of restaurateurs, is to ditch prices on menus and instead ask customers to pay whatever they think their meal was worth.

The result? In many cases, it seems, a warm fuzzy feeling of trust and mutual respect, and a payment that’s at least as big as the restaurant could have got away with charging.

It would be a brave university that tried this particular ruse with its students and tuition fees.

But there is an increasingly widespread approach to another part of the university-student contract – teaching and learning – that supporters say is delivering on the wider benefits of mutual endeavour.

In our cover feature this week, we explore the increasingly prominent role of “student producers” who are doing everything from setting exam questions to deciding on reading lists.

The extent of students’ involvement in curriculum design is a concern to some: how can they know what they should be learning before they’ve learned it?

And while it’s a distinguishing feature of higher education that students pursue their own, independent learning, it’s also understood that expert lecturers will be there to set the parameters.

So is this just a con trick to palm off responsibility on to students – after all, they can hardly complain about the curriculum if they designed it themselves – while giving the impression that they are being listened to as never before?

No, say its advocates. Rather, student-directed teaching and learning moves things along from tired discussions about students as passive consumers, sidesteps the unproductive focus on “satisfaction” and moves neatly on to genuine engagement.

A particularly well made observation about the advent of massive open online courses is that universities no longer have a monopoly on knowledge. The internet has blown it to pieces.

What they do have, however, which remains of real value, is wisdom, the ability to mentor and inspire, and the facility to marry expertise and experience with young minds.

The idea behind student-led teaching and learning is that universities really commit to this spirit of collaboration, acknowledging that there are important elements of the learning process that students are much better placed to understand. It is not about shirking responsibility to students.

As Peter Felten, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University in North Carolina, puts it: “As a historian I have disciplinary knowledge, and I also have pedagogical knowledge because I have been teaching for a while.

“But I don’t know what it means to be a student today, at this university; I didn’t attend this university, and maybe I wasn’t a typical undergraduate to begin with.”

Done in the right way, each side will learn from the other, filling gaps in their experience and building a closer relationship that should help to deliver better outcomes.

But there are risks. And any university that goes down a route equivalent to a Korean BBQ restaurant, where raw meat is brought to the table with a charcoal grill and diners are required to cook their own supper, will quickly get its fingers burned.

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Print headline: Cooking in an open kitchen

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