April 03, 2017

A history professor invited her students to co-create the syllabus—and watched their engagement and creativity soar

When history professor Mary-Ellen Kelm realized that her students had minimal interest in her course, she turned the tables by inviting them to help determine what they would learn and how they would be evaluated. The results, she says, have been “incredible.”

Mary-Ellen Kelm is offering a new kind of educational experience that puts learners in the driver’s seat. For the past two semesters, the SFU history professor and Canada Research Chair has invited students to co-create the syllabus, assignments and marking rubrics of HIST 326, a course that examines the history of Aboriginal people in North America since 1850.

“It was obvious from the work I was seeing semester after semester that the students didn’t care about the course material and were doing the bare minimum to get by,” says Kelm. “In some cases, the papers were so unrelated to the course material I had to wonder if they had purchased them online.”

Kelm felt the problem was that course content was not relevant to the goals and interests of her students and set out to change that by creating a participatory process that allows students to decide what content the course will cover and how they will demonstrate their knowledge.

“One of the strongest aspects of the course was that the students decided what the course would cover.” – Student

The student response, she notes, has been overwhelming. Over the span of just two cycles, students have turned in products ranging from policy briefing notes to high school curriculum to Tumblr boards and even video games.

“The creativity and motivation I see now is incredible. All of the work that comes to me is first-rate.”

Kelm admits that her approach is not without some drawbacks.

“It’s risky. You have to really know the field you’re teaching in so that you can feel comfortable wading into areas that you might not have initially planned to explore. That can be scary for some instructors—and time-consuming. I might have a lot of experience lecturing on federal Indian policy, but if the class has a different topic they want to learn about instead, I may need to prepare something entirely new.”

“This was the single best class I’ve taken in University.” – Student

Kelm begins each class by inviting students to anonymously respond via coloured sticky notes to a series of key questions including “What skills do you want to gain in this class?”, “What questions do you have?” and “What do you want to learn in this course?”

She then combines the responses with material she feels is important for them to cover.

“Many students don't know what they don't know, which is why the syllabus is a collaborative exercise. I take their input and combine it with key course concepts, such as historical frameworks and Indigenous research."

“What I have learned from [Mary-Ellen Kelm] in this course has applied to so many other history courses that I have taken and it has changed the value of my degree.” – Student

Kelm later meets with each student one-on-one to help them identify an assignment and grading framework that will meet their personal learning goals.

“Being able to help students really and truly engage with the content may take more time in the short term,” she says, “but one thing I have no doubt about is that it is time well spent.”