Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Leah Marion Roberts and Student-driven Course Goals and Expectations
By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
During Spring 2020, the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog series will highlight teaching innovations that CFT staff have implemented and evaluated in their own courses.
As a student, I find it helpful when a course has clear goals. But while that helps guide student learning, what’s equally, if not more important is actually having students take ownership of their learning to engage with the material. That’s why in Leah Marion Roberts’ HODH 3201: Introduction to Human Services course, she has the class participate in setting course goals and expectations.
Roberts’ philosophy for teaching centers on creating a collaborative, student-driven classroom environment. Additionally, inspired by Wiggins’ and McTighe’s backwards design process, Roberts has clear learning goals set and in the syllabus. In order to cultivate a culture of collaboration in relation to course goals, at the beginning of the semester, Roberts has students brainstorm what they expect of themselves, other students, and the instructor and what their goals for the course are.
Roberts first asks students to consider these questions alone, then to discuss and come up with a concrete list in small groups while she leaves the room to allow them to express themselves freely. She then has each group write their lists on the board for the categories outlined above. As a class, they then discuss their collective expectations with the goal of finding a final list of goals and agreements.
The discussion highlights potential conflicts, and gives the class an opportunity to discuss resolving individual differences within the class. A common disagreement Roberts sees is that some students expect group work and hope to learn from it while others prefer individual work.
The class-generated expectations and goals are then added alongside Roberts’ own in the class syllabus. These expectations and goals are referred to frequently as the course unfolds. For example, Roberts’ uses them to solicit feedback during mid-term and end of year evaluations. Students are asked to evaluate the instructor, their peers, and themselves in relation to the mutually agreed-upon expectations they set. Further, they are asked to evaluate the course alongside the specific learning goals that were set (rather than generically reflecting on their learning in the course).
Some other examples of common student-generated expectations:
- Students should come to class willing to participate in discussion, even if they’re afraid they might have the wrong answer
- Students should come to class with their work done so they can engage in the material
- The Instructor should open up class discussion of real-world issues
- The Instructor should be both invested in the course topic as well as in her students
There are several benefits of doing this in a course:
- It can help create a class culture of collaboration and gives students ownership over course expectations and their own learning. It also helps generate conversations about what students want to learn and what they expect from the course, and how that relates to the instructors’ priorities and expectations.
- It helps guide students during mid-term or end-of-course teaching evaluations towards reflection on learning goals and group agreements. Roberts has found that with this process, she receives constructive feedback and deeper reflection about students learning within the class, rather than generic comments about whether or not students enjoyed the class or liked the instructor.
- The process often leads to students taking responsibility for their own learning based on the expectations they set for themselves in this course. For example, on mid-term evaluations, students often comment that they are not meeting their own expectations of themselves, and identify ways to improve (e.g., not reading as thoroughly as they hoped, not being fully present in group discussions).
One persistent question that Roberts is grappling with is when to engage students in this process. She has previously done it on the first day of class but in the future may do it on a later day. The optimal time would be early in the course to establish expectations and goals but late enough that the students who participate in the discussion will be the final enrollment.
Roberts sees this practice of collaborative goal and expectation setting to also be an important part of teaching an online course. With a similar process, it can establish student’s motivations for taking the course, allow student ownership and collaboration of class material, and increase active participation. It can also help the instructor identify online-specific needs of students in the course, and allow for transparent conversation early in the course about what students and the instructor expect of each other.