July 12, 2018

When students were invited to co-create a course, engagement and attendance soared

Susan Clements-Vivian, a senior lecturer in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, invited students to sketch and share visual notes of course content. They responded with enthusiasm.

Scribbling diagrams and snapping pics on their phones, sure—but one thing you won’t see students doing in Susan Clements-Vivian’s lectures is napping.

Clements-Vivian is a senior lecturer in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology. In Spring 2017, she received a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines to apply and assess a new approach in her 50-student IAT 208 Drawing as Inquiry course.

“Students often feel disconnected from the content. The course material lives in the instructor’s lecture slides or on Canvas, but never with them. It’s no surprise, then, that the lecture itself becomes irrelevant and they either don’t show up to class or fall asleep when they do.”

Shared visual notes

Clements-Vivian’s solution to this situation was to transform her lectures from a place where material is communicated, to a place where material is co-created.

“My idea was for them to sketch visual notes alongside me during lecture, then take pictures of them and upload them to Canvas. They had the choice of requesting the notes be kept private, but no one took me up on that offer. Instead, all of the notes were then uploaded to a course blog so that we had a collective record of the class content.”

The key, she stresses, is that the notes are not simply uploaded and forgotten, but used as the primary reference material in the course.

Clements-Vivian explains that although visually based notes were particularly suited to her drawing class, the technique could also work with text-based notes. The key, she stresses, is that the notes are not simply uploaded and forgotten, but used as the primary reference material in the course.

“The notes weren’t always perfect, but in lecture we could work out what was missing as a class together. As we moved through the curriculum, I tagged concepts that were going to be assessed in the mid-term, so that they could then go back and study from what they had created. And it worked: traffic on the blog went way up right before mid-term, which was evidence they were really using them.”

Surprising outcomes

The results of the approach in terms of student engagement, she says, surprised her—in a good way.

“The feedback from the course was extraordinarily positive. Ninety-eight percent of students reported that they attended classes always or almost always. The reason: they were excited to be in class, they wanted to be a part of the process of creation that we were doing. It was wonderful to just see how happy everyone was to be there.”

Clements-Vivian acknowledges that the approach, though impactful, was a lot of work—and will likely continue to be a lot of work every time she offers the course.

“It’s always a lot of effort changing how you do things. I think in some ways it will get easier over time, but this one is always going to require a fair amount of effort. Because we basically co-created the course, so I can’t just pull something out and re-use it again next year.”

However, in her view that too is part of the success.

“One thing students said they appreciated was that I was working as hard as them. Of course, faculty all work in preparing materials, but that work is hidden. What was important was that we were producing at the same time. We were working together.”

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