Course Redesign with Student-Faculty Partnership (Part 2)
by Ketevan Kupatadze
Reflections on the changes suggested by student collaborators: Opportunities and limitations
Working on course expectations, objectives and requirements, as well as on the rubric for textbook selection, I was surprised at how much student collaborators’ opinions matched mine. Speaking about their initial expectations, student collaborators indicated that they were looking for developing written, compositional skills; improving their understanding of grammar and structures; and in general, reading and writing a lot. They noted that the course should help them acquire a much better understanding of typical Spanish style of creating ornate sentences, as well as the structure of essays and the knowledge of effective writing tools; the reading material should give them the ability to look for hidden meanings and symbolism, and expose students to a variety of writing styles.
On the other hand, listening to students made me see the transition that they were making from a high school to college environment, the limitations of their understanding of what learning entailed, and the divergence in our understanding of learning language and culture. Discussing their expectations, student collaborators remembered their experiences with high school language classes, in which students had enjoyed chronological arrangement of the material that surveyed the civilization of Spanish speaking countries. They pointed out that such structure and content was what they initially expected from the composition course and would like to be incorporated in the redesigned version. In other words, the course had not met students’ expectations of incorporating more structured and consistent content related to the Hispanic societies. One student said: “[M]y Spanish teacher my senior year, he taught AP Spanish, we didn’t really go by the book that much, we kind of did our own curriculum, so I thought it was especially interesting that we went by culture and by country so we would start off with like South America and bounce around from country to country and like through each unit we would do grammar and vocab and like you know do reading from that culture” (Student #2).
This student’s comment seemed to question the basic premise of a composition course. Were students saying that what they accomplished as writers through the duration of the course was not enough? In other words, did the course fail to help them recognize that developing their reading and writing skills in Spanish very much formed part of their cultural competence? Did they consider cultural competence to be the knowledge of historical facts and occurrences? While students noted that the course considerably improved their writing skills and working on different essays with much rewriting and editing involved, they still seemed to be privileging fact-based knowledge over the development of analytical skills. At the same time, as the Table in Part 1 shows, students did suggest incorporating analytical activities in the quizzes and exams as opposed to factual material that required simple memorization.
My student collaborators participated seriously in the course design process. Based on their reflections, they were highly engaged and had an educational experience throughout. As we started the project, each of the faculty collaborators had particular objectives in mind. We also wanted to know students’ perspectives on the goals and the meaning of the project. We conducted an initial survey to hear what students wanted to gain from this collaboration, as well as what they had to contribute to the process. Students commented that they wanted to a. learn what went into designing courses; b. learn more about the particular subject of the course they were asked to (re)design; c. learn about teaching and develop pedagogical skills. This is what my student collaborators wrote: “I feel invested in the Spanish program […] I am interested to learn how studies are conducted, [as well as other] important aspects of collaboration” (Student #1).
In follow-up reflections my student collaborators made comments about confronting the authority in student-teacher relationship:
- “It didn’t seem like any sort of hierarchy existed. It just seemed like we were two groups on the same team, so maybe like she was the offensive and we were the defensive or something and we just had to collaborate. […] Being willing to work together on the same level is crucial I think so that you’re not missing any feedback that students might be intimidated to give” (Student #1).
- “[…] I think we all kind of had equal roles. […] I felt more of partners I guess. I mean I never felt like she was like I’m the teacher or this is what we’re doing. She always really wanted to hear what, I mean obviously she wanted to hear what we all had to say and was very interested in our feedback and asked can I have a copy of your notes, this is all really helpful? […] So I never felt like, I felt like we were all working on this together. […] I think if you’re invited to do some sort of project like this, then it’s your responsibility to be honest and truthful since you are responsible for changing in part the way the course is going to be for the next couple of years. There’s no point in holding back and if people can get a better experience, not that I had a bad experience, I did well in the course and I liked it, but if it can be even better, then why not?” (Student #3).
All of the students indicated gaining new insight into the teaching and learning process as a result of their participation:
- “[I]t kind of reminded me of how much goes into making a course obviously because when you’re in a class you say why is the teacher doing this? This seems so irrelevant, stuff like that. But it’s all tied together” (Student #3).
- “I definitely realized it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. Creating a syllabus from scratch would be one of the most difficult things I could think of. Just even changing what we already had was difficult and it was already based off of a course, so I respect the professors for that” (Student #1).
- “So I realize more what the purpose of like the college writing course and the Spanish composition course were. I realized that they were helping me to develop my writing skills in these respective languages and that they were helping me to communicate effectively through writing” (Student #2).
Reflecting on my first experience with student-faculty partnership
My initial fear with the project was making myself vulnerable, as students would criticize certain aspects of the course that had taken so much time and commitment from me to develop. I was afraid that students would interpret the invitation to collaborate on course design as a sign of insecurity and lack of experience/knowledge. After all, was their teacher incapable of making necessary changes on her own? Didn’t she have enough practical and theoretical experience to design a course? What gave me confidence was having taught the students involved in the project and having already developed mutual respect. It was absolutely crucial in making this project work for both sides. While we maintained the respect for each other, students started to see me as “partner” and “friend.” The project did destabilize the hierarchy, but didn’t necessarily erase the respect that is vital in faculty-student relationship.
This collaboration with students inspired me to completely revamp the course at hand. In fact, courses like this that focus solely on the development of writing skills have been taken out of the Spanish curriculum at Elon University. Instead, we came up with a curriculum that is based on specific cultural, socio-political, literary, etc. topics with embedded instruction to support students’ reading, speaking, listening and writing abilities. While, as I discussed above, I disagree with focusing a course on facts and events, students’ comments made me realize that at their age, teaching meaningful content and engagement in intellectual conversations, something that is still not always associated with foreign language learning, matters. Since we made changes in the Spanish curriculum, I have observed an increased interest in students for our courses, as well as an increase in their ability to read and write at more advanced level.
This collaboration also inspired me to ask for student help when designing subsequent course syllabi, course assignments, rubrics, etc. In the next blog post, I will describe briefly some of the steps I have taken towards viewing students as collaborators in course design in the courses that I have taught since then.
Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focuses on student-faculty partnerships; this post is the first in a series on the topic that she will contribute to the Center’s blog over the next two years.