Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Time for a Change: Integrating Peer-Driven Learning

After a summer of research (four articles submitted, two book proposals ready to go), I've turned my attention back to preparing to teach. And this year, I'm finally putting my money where my mouth is; I'm making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class). I've taken my inspiration from the great Cathy Davidson and we will spend the first four week of the course shaping the final thirteen. 

Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it's about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching. 

Why I am only doing this in my 200-level class? Mostly because these are student who (in theory) have already learned the "basics" in their 100-level Freshman Writing class. I am hoping that the extra experience will help them feel more comfortable with the arrangement. I also hope that this means we can focus on what we are writing about versus how we are supposed to write about it.

If you would like to see my syllabus and offer comments, please do so below, rather than directly in the document. Please remember that this is a first draft of the document and I will be continually refining it and reworking it right up until the semester starts on the 19th. I hope to receive some good feedback here so that this class is as successful as possible.

I am also going to be using Cathy Davidson's new book Now You See It, which is excellent (more detailed review to come) in my 100-level class, where the theme will "The Future." After we read the book (which will take up about the first third to half of the semester), I will turn the class over to the students and we will read/watch/write works of their choosing based on the theme. At least, that's the plan. 

I have to say, I am at once terrified and exhilarated. I am looking forward to the challenge and I am optimistic that this will work. But I am also terrified that it will fail horribly, either due to my inability to let go or my students' unwillingness to break free of the way they have been conditioned to learn throughout their educations. I guess I have a little less than two week to chicken out and revert back to my usual dictatorial style. 

Please feel free to offer words of encouragement in either direction.


  1. This looks so exciting and inspiring! I hope you will post follow ups to let us know how it is going, and how it went at the end of the semester.

  2. I do a final year undergrad course on the American revolution: in the first third, I do a narrative history; in the second, I do some themes (e.g. political philosophies, slavery and the revolution, etc); and the students choose the final third--usually 6-8 sessions. Or they're supposed to. I've done it four times now, and typical I get a few keen ones with ideas, one or two more when I push them, and I make the rest up. I think I'm a positive, approachable teacher etc. and students say so, I explain the purpose of these choices (as you do above) etc, but I'd like to hear how you get yours to be more forward than I seem to be able to get mine. Mine being mostly British probably doesn't help. I still think it's a great thing to do, just wish I could make it work better. So I'll check in on your progress with interest.

  3. As a student, I loved it when I was given an opportunity to shape the courses I was taking and even chose my undergraduate institution based on its commitment to student-led learning.

    That said, I've had some absolutely horrible experiences with trying to implement this in courses I've taught. What I've learned is that it's a good idea to have a backup plan--to decide ahead of time what you'll do if students cannot or will not step up and make suggestions or decisions.

  4. Love the plan; I, as others, would appreciate hearing how it went (especially in light of Steve's reflections). What is your anticipated enrolment? Have you thought about how you anticipate engaging the lurkers who just want to be told what / how to learn?

    I might suggest tying some kind of incentive (e.g. marks) to get students to take the design aspect seriously. Or make the process a reflective assignment (again, for marks). If you're raging against the banking model of education (and rage on), I'd say the reflective piece is important for meta-cognition.

    I can imagine second year student getting overwhelmed with the idea of figuring out what they want to do; I'm sure you've given this some thought, but a slate of options or a relatively prescriptive method for design might help students' OMG! feeling.

    I guess I'm not clear how the crowd-sourcing links to assignments. It looks like they're all laid out (or, at least, you have University-level expectations to achieve). Will the material they set out also mean that they're designing assignments to demonstrate learning?

    OK, just my $.02 to ignore...

  5. Thanks everyone! I will be updating my blog with how things are progressing (and I will try not to just vent!). I'm hoping that framing the entire course as their choice, rather than only one section (which I am doing in my 100-level course) will inspire them to engage in this kind of activity right from the get-go. I also hope that getting my 100-level students to read Now You See It (which advocates a different direction in education) will inspire my students to begin thinking about their educations differently (and perhaps prepare them to take my 200-level course after Christmas).

    As for a back-up plan, I taught this course last year in a more traditional format. The syllabus (or semester plan) would just need the dates to be updated and it would be ready to go. But I don't think it will come to that. At least, I hope not. The beauty of the crowdsourced classroom is that if the students don't want to come up with the assignment, then the others will do it for them. I think this is also a good reason to institute some sort of contract grading situation.

    Now, the more rigid nature of the 200-level course (as for it not being completely free), I think is what will help shape and push the students. These are the things we HAVE to do (and, really, it's just one paper that is completely prescriptive). How can we play within those boundaries? How much coloring outside the lines could we get away with? We have to write one sort-of traditional argument/research essay. And then, after that, what else can we do?

    Thanks again everyone. I have been thinking about this more and more, refining it, and using your suggestions. First week starts on the 21st. I'll be reporting back.


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