People having a discussion around a table Photo courtesy of Nazareth College

At an increasing number of higher education institutions curriculum design and delivery is a product of collaboration between students and faculty members. The goal of these pedagogical partnerships are to establish a meaningful relationship between instructors and students that leads to a higher quality of teaching, more effective course delivery, and graduates who are better prepared for the workplace.

Bryn Mawr and Haverford College in Pennsylvania were the first to pilot this initiative on a campus-wide scale in 2007. Student consultants audit undergraduate lectures across a variety of disciplines and schedule weekly meetings with instructors to discuss what is effective and what needs improvement in terms of course delivery. The program does not call into question authority or expertise, but rather offers different insights and perspectives of what students find distracting or engaging in the classroom.

Interestingly, both instructors and students were initially apprehensive when these programs were implemented at their institutions.

Many students are initially intimidated by the perceived hierarchal relationship with instructors, feeling their suggestions may be inadequate or fall on deaf ears. However, once students realize that the relationship is designed to be a partnership, they become more comfortable in actively engaging in the process.

One of the most vocal arguments from instructors is they feel it is the students’ responsibility to become engaged with the course content; not theirs’. Many instructors have been designing and delivering curriculums in their own manner for years and therefore have little inclination to change a system that works for them. One professor who embraces this initiative notes that while he is an expert in an academic subject it has been decades since he was an undergraduate, so he is not an expert on the contemporary student experience.

While relatively few institutions have implemented the curriculum collaboration program, the results from those that have are promising. Students given a voice in curriculum development are more engaged in the classroom and perform better academically because they have a more intimate knowledge of the course structure and expectations. A number of students note that the experience makes them more employable due to the organizational skills they gain in program development and working with multidisciplinary teams.

The curriculum collaboration initiative is gradually growing across the world, with steady development in the UK being credited to support from the National Union of Students (NUS), the Higher Education Academy, and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). If the initiative becomes an internationally accepted practice it may lead to significant changes, and opportunities, in higher education pedagogy.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.