McDaniel students help design the classes they're taking

Three professors began the collaboration in January in hopes of getting students more engaged

  • To make courses more appealing to students, McDaniel College is experimenting with allowing a select group of upperclassmen to help design the classes that they are taking. Sociology class "Growing Up Gaza," taught by Dr. Sara Raley, standing, was developed by Raley with the help of students Bryan Yarrington, seated center, and Noel Walters, seated right.
To make courses more appealing to students, McDaniel College… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
April 03, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

As a professor of art history at McDaniel College, Gretchen McKay always assumed that a student's favorite assignment was the one that could be knocked out in a few easy minutes.

As a student who had taken McKay's courses, Joanna Boccio thought her professors threw together class sessions with little planning and less anxiety.

It turned out that neither had the other pegged exactly right.

McKay and Boccio learned this when they, along with two other professors and seven other students, spent January teaming up to plan new courses for the spring semester. Now, the students are taking the three classes they helped to design.

McKay, who directs McDaniel's Center for Teaching Excellence, borrowed the idea from Elon University in North Carolina, which has used faculty-student teams to design courses since 2005. She says she is always looking for ways to get undergraduates more engaged in her classes.

"So what better way than to give them a hand in creating them?" she says.

Fears about a lack of student engagement are sweeping higher education. At McDaniel and other campuses, professors are discussing a recently published book, "Academically Adrift," which argues that undergraduates are learning precious little, no matter how much they pay for their college.

"I think one of the problems with education is that it's too teacher-centered rather than student-centered," says Bob Trader, one of the McDaniel professors who collaborated with McKay. "Our effort was one promising avenue. Is it the ultimate answer to all the problems in the universe? Probably not. But is it a step in the right direction? I think it is."

The concept might sound ludicrous if you're wedded to a traditional, top-down model of education, in which the professor with the doctorate knows best.

"It's certainly not uncontroversial," says Sara Raley, a sociology professor who is also participating in McKay's experiment. "Some of our fellow faculty members think we're bonkers."

But Raley and McKay say they learned all sorts of things about millennial students that they hadn't guessed before.

For example, students wanted, even demanded, cumbersome assignments that tested the depths of their knowledge. They just didn't want them handed out on the first day of class and never mentioned again until the last week.

"I think we learned how much they crave structure," McKay says. "If you just said, 'Do a 20-page paper and turn it in at the end of the semester,' they'd be out to sea."

In response, McKay and her students added checkpoints throughout the semester. Students had to propose ideas for their final papers before spring break. Last week, they had to deliver presentations on their research. They will next turn in drafts several weeks before the finished papers are due.

"I had dropped research papers from some of my classes altogether," McKay says. "But now, I realize that I just wasn't doing it in a structured enough way."

Though it's still rare for colleges to include students in course planning, it's becoming more common for them to redesign courses with a focus on getting students excited about the material.

"I think that's brilliant of McDaniel," says Nancy Shapiro, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Maryland.

Shapiro is overseeing a sweeping effort to redesign courses that are frequent stumbling blocks for students who end up dropping out. Though students aren't directly involved in planning the revamped courses, professors do consider students' views about why the original courses failed to connect. System officials believe that redesigned courses could be key to improving college graduation rates across the state.

At McDaniel, students say the course planning helped give them a window into how professors think.

"I thought it was really interesting to realize how little we, as students, know about what goes into it," says Linsey Turkett, a junior from Annapolis who is taking McKay's class on the tradition and reception of classical art. "It's a lot of work."

Boccio, a junior from New York, says she has always been nervous meeting new professors on the first day of class. But she had no idea that her instructors shared those first-day jitters.

"It just made me a lot more comfortable with them," she says of planning classes side by side.

The students got to hear the extensive deliberation behind each assignment, the uneasiness professors feel when their lessons are greeted with indifference.

The group engaged in philosophical discussions about who is most responsible for a class reaching its potential. The students realized that if they don't communicate what's working and what isn't, the professor can only do so much.

"Students sometimes come in with the attitude that college is supposed to be fun and they don't want us affecting their social lives too much," McKay says with a laugh. "So we asked them, 'Is the academic piece getting lost?'"

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