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Students as Producers: An Introduction

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

As I announced last month, this year many of the Center for Teaching’s workshops, conversations, and other resources for the Vanderbilt teaching community will be part of our “Students as Producers” theme. I first heard the term “student as producer” in a keynote by the University of Lincoln’s Mike Neary at a 2011 conference in Ireland. Mike is Dean of Teaching and Learning at Lincoln and directs the Student as Producer initiative there. He argued that students should move from being the object of the educational process to its subject. Students should not be merely consumers of knowledge but producers, engaged in meaningful, generative work alongside the university’s faculty.

From the Student as Producer website at the University of Lincoln:

Student as Producer is a development of the University of Lincoln’s policy of research-informed teaching to research-engaged teaching. Research-engaged teaching involves more research and research-like activities at the core of the undergraduate curriculum… In this way students become part of the academic project of the University and collaborators with academics in the production of knowledge and meaning.

Students are frequently involved in knowledge production at Vanderbilt outside of the classroom, through undergraduate research and internships. And our students take on “producer” roles in student organizations and entrepreneurial activities–again, outside the classroom. What appealed to me about the University of Lincoln’s initiative, and what I look forward to exploring with the Vanderbilt community this year, is the involvement of students as producers inside the classroom, that is, within the confines of a standard semester-long course.

What does it look like when students take on producer roles in a course? It varies greatly across different kinds of courses and across the disciplines. That’s why we’ve included several related terms in our theme-year logo: students as scholars, creators, researchers, performers, designers. We might have included innovators, authors, and problem solvers to that list. The idea of students as producers plays out differently in different contexts. Here are just a few examples of courses that feature “production” activities, all highlighted here on the CFT website in the past:

  • English faculty Humberto Garcia and Allison Schachter ask students in some of their courses to express their ideas through words and images on course blogs. Instead of writing weekly reading responses only seen by their instructors, students share their perspectives and analyses with each other, contributing to the collaborative construction of knowledge within their courses.
  • Students in Steve Baskauf‘s second-semester introduction to biology lab don’t engage in “cookbook” labs. Instead, they design experiments to answer open questions in biology, and share their results with each other and the department in an end-of-semester poster session.
  • All Engineering undergraduates take a senior design course, during which they work in teams on real engineering projects, often for external clients. Every year, at least a couple of these teams win prizes or outside funding for the innovations they develop. We interviewed one team for our podcast who developed spinach-powered solar cells.
  • HOD faculty member James Fraser helped students in his “Sustainability, Justice, and the City” course to gather and analyze data on the Chestnut Hill neighborhood in Nashville, data that showed excessive heating and cooling costs for many residents. The students’ reports were shared with the mayor’s office which then provided energy audits and repairs to residents’ homes.

What makes a course a “Students as Producers” course? While there’s no formal definition, one can see a few common elements in the examples above.

  • Students are asked to work on problems that haven’t been fully solved or questions that haven’t been fully answered. That might mean tackling an open, but manageable research question, as in Steve Baskauf’s biology lab; applying ideas and techniques taught in a course to a novel situation, as in James Fraser’s service-learning course; or making original connections across course material and the student’s prior experiences, as in Humberto Garcia and Allison Schachter’s English courses. (For more on the latter idea, see Chapter 9, “On Original Work,” in James Lang’s excellent new book, Cheating Lessons.) Since definitive answers to these questions aren’t known, the work the students do is more authentic. Not only does this motivate students to take the work more seriously (it’s not “busy work”), but it also helps prepare them for the open-ended problems they will face when they leave college. (See Chapter 4, “How Do Students Develop Mastery?”, in How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose and colleagues for more on helping students transfer knowledge to new situations.)
  • Students are asked to share their work with others, not just their instructor. Several years ago, I heard a talk by Gardner Campbell in which he described a course blog of his in which students wrote not just for him, but for their peers in the course, students who had taken the course in previous semesters, and interested readers around the world. I was struck by how these audiences motivated the students to contribute to the blog, to write and to write well. More recently, I’ve started using a term coined by Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf to describe this idea: social pedagogies, “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” In each of the Vanderbilt examples above, students shared their work with authentic audiences, either fellow students or external audiences, motivating students to produce work worth sharing. (For more on the power of social motivations, I recommend Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum’s 2006 article, “Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue.”)
  • Students are given a degree of autonomy in their work. Whether students are given a general category of questions to pursue, as in Humburto Garcia and Allison Schachter’s seminars or Steve Baskauf’s lab course, or a more constrained list of problems from which to choose, as in James Fraser’s course and the senior design course in engineering, students engaged as producers are typically given the chance to work on tasks of personal or professional interest. In my own mathematics courses, I’m constantly impressed by the enthusiasm that many of my students bring to their application projects when I allow and encourage them to select their own topics. As with the first two elements of students-as-producers, motivation plays an important role here. Cognitive science tells us that we are more motivated when we feel we have some autonomy over our work. Giving students choices is one way to increase their feeling of autonomy and agency. (See “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions” by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci for more on the importance of autonomy for learning.)

There’s much more to be said about the idea of students as producers. We’ll be exploring the topic here on the CFT blog and in workshops and conversations throughout the year. We have several events on this theme scheduled already. I hope you can join us at one or more of them this fall!

  • Students as Producers: Incorporating Research and Design into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Classes, a conversation on teaching with faculty panelists John Ayers (Earth & Environmental Science), Mark Woelfle (Biological Sciences), and Tom Withrow (Mechanical Engineering) – September 25th, 4:10-5:30pm – More info
  • Beyond the Five-Page Paper: Representing Student Learning Visually, a teaching workshop facilitated by CFT senior staff Derek Bruff and Nancy Chick – October 16th, 3:10-4:30pmMore info
  • Producing, Performing, & Creating Learning across the Humanities: Models of Generative Learning Assignments, a conversation on teaching with faculty panelists Nathalie Dieu-Porter (French & Italian), Alice Randall (African-American & Diaspora Studies), and Rory Dicker (Women’s & Gender Studies) – October 24th, 4:10-5:30pm – More info
  • Engaging Students as Learners and as Participants in Community Building: The Synergies of Service Learning, a teaching workshop facilitated by CFT senior staff Joe Bandy – November 14th, 4:10-5:30pmMore info

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