Thomas, the university colloquium program director at Florida Gulf Coast University, teaches an introductory course on sustainability that all undergraduates are required to take. Many students, she says, are resistant to the idea that the course is in any way relevant to their major.
Lindenauer, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University, teaches an introductory course on American history, which meets a general-education requirement. That, she says, combined with students’ preconceived notions that a history class consists of boring lectures and facts they have to memorize, makes for a skeptical audience.
That common problem led both instructors to try something similar to win over students: asking them to help design the course. Sometimes called a “negotiated” curriculum, this approach is based on the idea that the more you put students
in charge of what they learn
, the more excited they’ll be to dive in.
I heard about Thomas’s and Lindenauer’s work when we asked readers to tell us about their teaching experiments. I followed up with both after the semester ended, to find out what happened.
While the experiments took different approaches, it’s notable that both instructors began the semester focused on building trust and rapport with their students. You can’t walk in on Day 1, each said, and expect students to start designing the syllabus.
For Thomas, that meant spending the first four weeks of her class, which enrolls about 25 students, providing a framework and a set of goals. She laid out what she wanted them to achieve in the course. She also described the topics covered in the textbook and noted the ones she could speak about intelligently. In other words, it wasn’t a free for all, but a guided set of options they could choose from.
On Week 5, the class gathered for a planning day, began tossing around ideas, and then narrowed down the list. Thomas, who has taught this course for the past six years, says the topics they chose for the rest of the semester looked almost the same as what she would have selected.
“They picked the things I would have picked,” she says. “But they didn’t know that and didn’t need to know that.”
More informative, she says, is what her students wanted to focus on within those topics. On the topic of food, for example, Thomas says she would have normally covered issues like habitat destruction and soil depletion. Because she’s an ecologist, she notes, she comes at things from an ecological perspective. The students, by contrast, wanted to learn about food scarcity, food insecurity, veganism, and permaculture.
That shift in focus created two immediate benefits: “It made me think more deliberately about my lesson plans,” she says, and “caused me to take the time to expand my own knowledge.”
Lindenauer, who has taught a section of the history course for the past 13 years, took a different approach. She began her first history class by asking students to discuss how they like to learn, hobbies that engage them, and what they hate about history classes. The idea was to get them thinking about what makes learning exciting.
Throughout the course she worked with Aura Lippincott, an instructional designer at Western Connecticut. After that brainstorming session, the two created lists of possible activities and assignments, which the students then ranked.
Lindenauer and Lippincott have done this experiment for two semesters now. In both cases, the major project ended up being a game, because that was the way in which most students said they liked to learn. The students had to be encouraged to talk about their love of games, the two say, perhaps because they didn’t consider that real learning.
In the first course, the students developed a game around life in 17th-century New England. In the second, the game was built around the American Revolution. In both cases, the game carried on through the semester, and aligned with the larger goal of the course, says Lippincott, “which was to have empathy and understand the humanness of people living in this time.”
Students created historically accurate characters and searched out primary and secondary sources of information. In the American Revolution game, for example, students spent two classes developing a piece of propaganda either for or against revolution, depending on whether they were patriots or loyalists. Other students voted on who they found more convincing.
So how did these experiments turn out? “They loved it,” says Thomas. “They absolutely loved it.” Her sustainability students told her they felt more engaged because they had a voice in shaping the curriculum. “Which of course,” she says, “was the goal.”
She also noticed that everyone participated in discussions by the last few weeks of class. Normally, she says, a few students tend to monopolize the conversation while the rest remain relatively quiet.
Thomas says the experiment taught her that students, even the reluctant ones, do think deeply about the issues they cover in class. They just need help bringing that interest to the surface. And while a negotiated curriculum might not work for every subject, professors should think about how they can give students more agency to activate their innate curiosity.
“I feel like we don’t give students enough credit,” she says. “We hear about our students being entitled and spoiled and this and that. I find our students to be much more knowledgeable and engaged than I was when I was their age.”
Thomas, who worked with the director of her campus teaching and learning center, Bill Reynolds, to develop this teaching experiment, says the two hope to work with other faculty members who might be interested in trying a negotiated curriculum. And she plans to continue with this approach in her teaching.
Lindenauer had a similarly positive experience. In their evaluations, students “talked about their level of engagement and how much more connected they felt to the material,” she says. She did have a couple of students each semester who said they wished she would just lecture, but she figures there will always be a few who don’t like this approach.
Like Thomas, Lindenauer says the experiment gave her deeper insights into her students and informed her teaching. “I had been bound to a textbook structure,” she says. “The students are really, really interested in human emotion and death and its relationship to life and childhood. That’s their entrance. That’s where they find their spark.”
Her challenge going forward, she says, is to figure out how to incorporate that interest into her teaching. She and Lippincott plan to continue co-creating the syllabus with their students and incorporating games into their teaching.
Have you asked your students to help you create your syllabus? If so, what’s something you learned about your teaching, or about your students, in the process? Write to me at
and your story may appear in a future newsletter.
Beth McMurtie, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education.