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Collaboration in Curriculum Design

Updated article originally published January 21, 2016.

When thinking about ways to enhance learning, we often turn to theories and practices in pedagogy or Edtech, but what if students were given a bigger say in their education? At an increasing number of higher education institutions, curriculum design and delivery are a product of collaboration between students and faculty members. The goal of these pedagogical partnerships is 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. Beyond this, higher education in general strives to integrate students into a world of scholarship; in fact, researchers Bovill and Bulley argue that “without such participative opportunities early in the university experience, we reduce the possibility of students developing a deeper understanding and ownership of the content and processes of their learning experiences.”

Bovill and Bulley suggest that student engagement demonstrated through discussion or questions as well as institutional access and committee representation in curriculum design enhance commitment to learning, enhance disciplinary knowledge, and give students a greater sense of confidence towards expressing their views. As such, it may be safe to say that collaborating on curriculum design helps students develop a stance in their field. But, are universities willing to commit to including students in a process long-thought to be faculty exclusive?

Including Active Student Participation in Curriculum Design

Bryn Mawr and Haverford College in Pennsylvania were the first to pilot the collaborative curriculum practice 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 instructor 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. At the core of this apprehension may be the notion that many students are intimidated by the perceived hierarchical relationship with instructors, and as a result, feel their suggestions may be inadequate or fall on deaf ears. However, as the program developed, these concerns have faded. Though the students’ new, undeveloped disciplinary perspectives do not lend legitimacy, especially when considering the field stature of the instructors, students’ outside perspectives often show key gaps and assumptions, and are often welcomed by professors. Once students realize that the relationship is designed to be a partnership, they become more comfortable in actively engaging in the process.

Some dissenting opinions have continued; one of the most vocal arguments from instructors is that they feel it is the students’ responsibility to become engaged with the course content; not their responsibility to redesign delivery to be more engaging. Many instructors have been designing and delivering curriculums in their own manner for years and have little inclination to change a system that works for them.

But collaborative curriculum design programs ask whether giving students a greater voice allows them to create a more intimate knowledge of the course structure and expectations, which is especially relevant given that every generation of students is different. Moreover, student insights are often tied to their experience. 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.

Important here is a note from a number of students who explain that the experience makes them more employable due to the organizational skills they gain in program development and working with multidisciplinary teams. Thus, the student perspective of collaborative curriculum design is a way to enhance education with their interests in mind.

Lessons from the Experiments and Future Considerations

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.

In today’s world, where there is a mixture of in-person classes and online classes, educators may be willing to flex the format of traditional course design in interesting new ways. Given the breadth of new research and the success displayed in case studies, collaborative design could be more widely employed as a method of supporting teaching and learning. Students deserve to have their voice heard and should be offered the chance to take charge of their own learning.

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