Tuesday, March 27, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 4)

by Rai Farrelly
This past week Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem, UT hosted the 4th Annual Conference on the Scholarship of Teaching and Engagement (SoTE) in Higher Education. I had the pleasure of presenting on my experiment with sharing the power in the class. My talk was entitled 'Sharing the Power: A Community of Learners from Day One'. Interestingly, the director of the UVU Faculty Center along with a student also presented on Sharing the Power in the classroom. Our two sessions, offered back to back, provided a great platform for discussing the opportunities and challenges present in sharing the power.

I shared with the audience some recent feedback I received from my students during an informal midterm qualitative feedback session. I asked them to reflect on the following and give me some input:

1. Was co-designing this course during days 1, 2 and 3 useful to you? Please explain.
2. What topics would you like to revisit for clarification purposes? (e.g., diversity, learning objectives, lesson planning, etc.)
3. What is still unclear and why? (e.g., time on topic, teaching approach, opportunities to reflect)
4. What forthcoming topics are most important/interesting to you at this point? (e.g., learning styles, learner-centered approaches, addressing resistance to learner-centered approaches, assessment, etc.)
5. Would you like to alter the schedule in any way to cover certain topics sooner/later?
6. Are there any topics not on the schedule that you'd like to bring to the class? (e.g., classroom civility, using technology, etc.)

Taking this approach to collecting and addressing midterm feedback continues the power sharing and the sense of this class as a community of learners who should be able to contribute to the design and direction of the course - even midstream. As you can imagine, I received quite a bit of feedback, much of which was very informed and insightful. These are all graduate students, post docs and professionals with needs and goals specific to their roles as teachers at the University. Here are some points from their responses related to sharing the power.

The first question was designed to give me a sense for future iterations of this class as to how useful the opportunity to co-design the course was. These are some of their comments:

1. Allowing us to assist with the planning of the course is empowering. It also increases our own accountability.
2. It gave us some ownership and allowed us to pick what we felt was important.
3. It helped me to see how students can be integrated in the course development process.
4. Making decisions on grading, objectives, etc. was useful.
5. It set the course in motion so that learning objectives became clear and attainable.
6. It brought forth the difficulty encountered with course design and allowed for practice experience with the thought process.
7. It was very helpful.
8. It was nice to be able to contribute to the design according to the class' needs (i.e., our needs).
9. Yes, we felt involved.

Of course, there were some constructive comments and some that just reflected a sense that the process wasn't useful.

1. It was useful for 1.5 days as it gave us a chance to see how it could be done. I thought it could have been shorter than 3 days.
2. Not very useful, but the process is good to experience how to discuss with students.
3. Yes and no. I can certainly see where application is helpful but now I sometimes feel rushed.
4. Not for me specifically. The original syllabus seemed to cover what I wanted to learn. I would have rather spent that time learning other material.
5. I think it dragged on a little too long. Maybe hash stuff out more quickly.

For me, all of these comments are so uplifting. I have learned from their feedback and have a great sense of changes I will make next semester. Clearly, I will need to expedite the process a little bit so we can move into the 'tofu' of the course (I'm a vegetarian!). But, I will conduct the course design in much the same way, relying on the situational factors (e.g., class size, students' needs, goals, expectations, backgrounds, etc.) to inform our course objectives, assessments and learning plan.

In addition to this course design feedback, all of their immediately relevant comments on course content (e.g., muddy points, topics of interest that are not on the agenda and areas that they are looking forward to, etc.) will inform how the last half of our semester plays out. I'm striving to model a course for them that will show how students can and should be part of the process throughout the semester. Hopefully, whether they can articulate exactly how right now or not, they will one day test out the power sharing in their future classes.

One important conversation point at the SoTE conference last week was the level to which you can share the power. From day one with my students, we have discussed our process in comparison with how it might unfold in different types of courses - such as those with over 100 undergraduates. Audience members at our sessions asked about how sharing power could be possible given this factor or that. We tried to stress, as I have with my students, that the question should not be 'To share power or not to share power' but rather, on a continuum of possible power sharing from little to extensive, how much can you afford to share. The answer will come in light of situational factors, not the least of which is a teacher's own comfort zone for power sharing. Consider what you are comfortable with first, then let your context inform the level to which you can involve the students in directing their learning.

I encourage you to take the leap! Dive in and test the waters. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much you enjoy the process. Just be prepared for an all inclusive learning experience. Remember to reflect often, revise as needed, change directions with the 'winds' of student feedback and your own intuitions. All the while, you can pat yourself on the back for stepping up and trying something that honors students' knowledge, experience, goals and expectations! 

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