Students as Partners in Course Redesign: Three Reflections

by Amy Armenia, Emily Curran, & Alex Hill

The authors of this blog post are reflecting on their faculty-student partnership in redesigning a Sociology course that fulfills the Math Competency in the general education curriculum. Working with Sociology professor Amy Armenia were Emily Curran and Alex Hill, two students who’ve taken this course and who have long-terms goals of doing quantitative social science research and/or working in higher education in social science. This project is an example of work produced by the Endeavor Center’s Signature Working Groups, supported by Rollins College’s General Education Implementation Grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Amy Armenia:  A mentor of mine in a previous job always quoted his mentor who, when asked to describe students to new faculty, responded, “They are not like you.” I took this as a reminder that my students are likely to come to my classroom with a different set of expectations, needs, skills, and challenges than even those I can remember from my college days. Getting a handle on student perspectives has not always been easy, though.

I was at the annual meeting of ISSOTL (the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) in 2019 when I saw a few different presentations about course revisions using a Student as Partners (SaP) approach. It was one of those moments when something new to me seemed so obvious and appropriate as a way to move forward in my course design. SaP uses collaboration between students and faculty to guide decisions in teaching and learning.

For my first experience in SaP, I wanted to collaborate with students on a redesign of my SOC 215: Statistics and Data Analysis in Social Science, which also serves as a Math Competency course for the general education program. In its first iteration in Spring 2019, this course drew students from freshmen to seniors, about a third from the Sociology major, but also more broadly from students in other programs that did not have a required MCMP course embedded in the major map. While the course was relatively successful, I was especially interested in increasing the scaffolding, active-learning, and authenticity in the course.  I recruited two students from that first group: Alex Hill and Emily Curran. Both are sociology majors and wonderful students, and I hoped to draw on their thoughtfulness and insights regarding their own experiences as students as well as those of their peers.

Together, we read some general material about course design and learning, and met five times to discuss readings and their applicability to this course. Throughout this process, I gained many new insights that I’d have been unlikely to get just from my own perspective. We came up with different ways to structure class time to focus on the central issues that the students perceived as most difficult (notably, not the ones I expected). They encouraged more small, low-stakes, assignments to give students practice with material after reading, but before the higher-stakes homework and tests. They also suggested a number of strategies to help with student motivation and morale in a subject that often provokes a lot of anxiety for students.

The revised version of this course, slated for Spring 2021, will incorporate all of these elements and more, and will also incorporate more feedback mechanisms from students in the course, to continue having my students as partners in this project.

Emily Curran: Creating effective and authentic learning environments for students requires significant skill and hindsight. A professor needs to predict where students will struggle and create plans for navigating areas of hardship and triumph in the classroom. This, obviously, was not new for Dr. Armenia, but by being a part of the conversation to rework SOC 215, an introductory statistics course, I gained a greater appreciation for the learning process and the work that goes in to creating a syllabus.

The biggest barrier in a statistics classroom is often student anxiety about the subject. Many students arrive with a fixed mindset tainted with failure from past math experiences. To create a safe space that is mindful of all students in the class, a large portion of the redesign focused on changing the structure of the learning and how students received feedback. Instead of a typical set up where the students read prior to class and then are taught the material in class, we opted for a semi-flipped classroom. On most days, students will read or watch a video and answer a few basic comprehension questions prior to arriving in class. This will place more agency in the student for their own learning while lessening the amount of lecture time in class. By having some familiarity with the concepts before coming to class, class time can be spent by addressing questions and working with peers where students will receive immediate feedback from others. Traditional homework and exams will remain, but the emphasis will be more conceptual. With increased feedback and practice time, it is our hope that students will become better learners.

Statistics is a vital tool to have. A grasp of basic statistical concepts aids in other coursework, research, information literacy, and life beyond the classroom. An authentic learning environment is necessary to communicate the usefulness of the subject and lead students towards mastery. In this course, a lab portion at the end of the semester will serve as an opportunity for students to explore an area of interest, within a pre-approved data set, using the skills they worked hard to acquire all semester. With a scaffolded framework that culminates in a presentation, students will be guided through the process of using statistics as a communication tool.

Working alongside Alex and Dr. Armenia has pushed me to be more reflective and critical about my own learning. I am grateful for this opportunity and I look forward to seeing our work come to fruition in the spring.

Alex Hill: Over the course of the spring semester I was able to work with Dr. Armenia and Emily Curran on revising the Statistics and Data Analysis for Social Science course. In order to address our shared goals for the working group, we reviewed the current course content and read relevant literature on learning and teaching. In our weekly meetings, Emily and I were able to combine our personal experiences and discuss the readings in order to further develop our goals to revise the course.

Getting hands-on experience in strategically creating course plans was really valuable. In order to address concepts like developing mastery and the value of peer revision, we read literature on how to teach and learn effectively. This not only gave great insight into how to design coursework to benefit future students, but it also gave me a new lens to view my own learning techniques. Reading from academic studies and the advice of experienced professors, I now have a deeper understanding of what teaching techniques I have found the most success in, and a greater awareness for some of the tactics my professors have used in class over the years. I now feel more equipped to utilize these skills on both the teaching and the learning side, which will be beneficial to completing my coursework and degree at Rollins, as well as in preparing me on my track for graduate school.

This collaborative process was particularly useful in this case, as it allowed us to craft course material that is specifically tailored to Rollins’s sociology department. In combining our understanding of more universal learning strategies along with our personal experiences in the department, we were really able to develop ideas specific to the Rollins learning experience. Everything from crafting the flow of the syllabus, to discussing ideal learning spaces on campus, had the unique experience of Rollins students in mind. I think the sociology department as a whole will be able to benefit from the revisions made to the course. Once the materials have been revamped for its next iteration, this will hopefully allow for the course to be continued easily over semesters to come, making the content a constant among sociology students.

Working alongside a professor and another student was very beneficial. Throughout our meetings, Emily and I reflected on what we remembered of our own experiences, having taken SOC 215 together with Dr. Armenia in the previous academic year. Though we took the exact same class, we often recalled many different impactful moments from the course. The collaboration really allowed me to open up and better understand how many students can have a variety of takeaways from the same course. I feel that this shared perspective allowed us to help craft ideas for goals and assignments that would benefit a wider variety of students, ultimately making the course more accessible for all students interested.

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