Giving students choice on what is being discussed in class

Speaking about co-creating learning and giving students choice in what they learn, one thing that I have found to work really well is to sometimes present different options.

For example, in my workshops on university teaching, there are some topics that are always requested, even if they are not part of the planned content for the course:

  • it is very common that participants want to talk about how to actively engage large classes
  • it is equally common that participants complain that they never know whether students actually understood something until the final exam, when it is too late
  • often participants wonder how much students know about a topic and whether they are starting from the right point for a given student group, or if students have certain misconceptions
  • sometimes participants don’t know how to get discussions in small student groups going

I always start my workshops by collecting the topics that are really important to participants, and usually one or several of these come up. Which is perfect, because then we can discuss exactly what participants asked for, while the answer to all these questions is basically the same (and would typically have come under a boring heading like “multiple choice questions” or “audience engagement”, which would not have sounded nearly as relevant to participants as me showing the exact same slide deck about the many uses of multiple choice questions and how to use them in combination with peer instruction in response to their question ;-))

Obviously this is a special case where I know who my audience is and what their big pain points are, so I know they will ask me for a topic that I was planning on talking about anyway. But you don’t have to be as open and ask the open question of what topics they want to talk about, you could also suggest my list above and have them vote (and then talk about the same thing again, just under the framing of the option they chose).

Or, if there are several different examples you could use to illustrate the same point, you could put them up for students to choose between them. For example, in case of my university teaching workshops, talking about feedback: you could put the focus on giving feedback to students, or receiving feedback from students. Many of the relevant points are the same: How to give/ask for good feedback, biases that might influence feedback, … But again, depending on what the current pain points are, the same content might feel a lot more relevant under a different framing!

Lastly, if it doesn’t matter which of several topics you discuss, you could also let students decide. Do you want to talk about good oral exams or how to form small student groups?

In my experience, giving students choice in any of these three ways makes them a lot more motivated and engaged than if I just present what I think is most important under my preferred framing. And in the end, with a little experience, it is not a lot more work to have a couple of slides ready that you might end up not showing, or preparing three different spins on the same topic. It definitely pays off!

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