Engaging students as partners in the redesign of an existing course curriculum

Dr Despoina Mantzari, School of Law
d.mantzari@reading.ac.uk

Overview

In June 2016 I was awarded a small University of Reading Teaching and Learning grant with the objective to involve a group of ten postgraduate taught students from the School of Law as partners in the process of redesigning the curriculum of a core postgraduate taught module. This entry reflects on the process of engaging students as partners in the redesign of an existing course curriculum. It discusses how insights from the burgeoning literature on students as partners in higher education informed the process and assesses the outcomes of the latter for improving and supporting teaching and learning.

Objectives

  • To listen to the ‘student voice’ before course delivery, by proactively engaging students as partners in the redesign of the module.
  • To co-create learning experiences in collaboration with students that goes beyond the student satisfaction surveys and other ex-post forms of evaluation.
  • To redesign a module so that it is both engaging and empowering.

Context

The module Advanced International Commercial Law Issues (LWMTAI), being a core compulsory module of the new LLM, had to be redesigned so as to fit into the new programme requirements. In doing so, I wanted to listen to the ‘student voice’ before course delivery, by proactively engaging students as partners in the redesign of the module. This exercise departs from current practice in higher education, where ‘student voice’ is largely heard following the completion of the taught component of the module on a Module Evaluation Form.

Implementation

Guided by the values of inclusion and partnership, I first emailed all students enrolled on the module in its pre-revised form (2015-16) and introduced the project and its aims, and invited expressions of interest. In order to further test the modules’ renewed approach to the theoretical framework and other relevant components, I also invited a group of five students who had never been enrolled on the module to participate in the project. In selecting this latter group of five students, I was guided by considerations of diversity, both in terms of ethnic and cultural background as well as prior exposure to commercial law. Inviting all LLM students who had never enrolled on the project would have been inappropriate for the aims of the project and would render it difficult to manage. Both previously used (prior to 2015-16) and revised module description forms (to be introduced in 2016-17) of the module were circulated to both groups along with a questionnaire. All students involved were asked to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the module, as reflected in the module description forms, along with other concerns or recommendations they wished to share. These were discussed during a two-hour event, open to all students participating in the project and School of Law staff involved in postgraduate taught and undergraduate Law teaching.

Impact

The project enhanced student motivation and engagement, and fostered the development of a learning community within the School of Law. Students enjoyed their participation in the project and in particular their contribution to the event that followed. They were fascinated by their collaboration with staff and by their active role in critically reviewing the course curriculum.

The project also helped students to review their own learning process and allowed them to develop an increased sense of leadership and motivation. It also increased their confidence to express their views in academic settings. Student involvement facilitated the design of the module in ways that significantly improved it.

The project had a transformative effect on the way I perceive my role as an educator and the boundaries thereof.

Reflections

Three key factors contributed to the project’s success:

First, the fact that I ‘institutionalised’ the project by applying for a University of Reading Teaching and Learning Small Research Grant not only allowed me to fund the activities, but also raised the profile of the project in the eyes of both students and staff.

Second, the careful selection of those elements of the curriculum redesign that would be part of the student-staff partnership. I opted for a model of interaction where students are given limited choice and influence. The reason for this related to the nature of the project, which concerned the redesign of an existing module in its entirety. When engaging students as partners, reciprocity cannot always be fulfilled, as high-stake issues of module redesigns, such as the theoretical framework or methods of assessment cannot be entirely handed over to students. Students may find themselves confused if a tutor hands over total control of such an important element without preparation or guidance. Such practice may jeopardise the gatekeeper function of the educator.

The third element went to the heart of student as partner practice: how many students to involve in the project, and by which means. The literature suggests that students as partners can involve work with individuals, small groups, and situations where students are invited to become partners, or even elected or selected. While the literature has drawn attention to the potential benefits of whole cohort approaches, it may be difficult, impossible, or even undesirable in some contexts to involve all students at all times. In this case, a whole-cohort approach could not be adopted, as some students enrolled in the module in its pre-revised form had already left the University. Furthermore, selecting students could potentially undermine the values of inclusion, respect and responsibility that underpin the students as partners approach. Meaningful partnership requires a high level of equality and contribution from partners, and that would be jeopardised by implementing an approach that would invite to the project only student that the module convenor deemed suitable to participate.

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