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Engaging Students as Course Co-Constructors


By Sherry L. Deckman

“To teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge.” ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

Throughout each semester, I ask my Social and Cultural Foundations of Education course to provide feedback on how the class is progressing for them, including any frustrations or lingering questions. A common theme around the mid-semester point is how much the students don’t know. They lament (or complain):

“It frustrates me to think about how there aren’t easy solutions when it comes to education so I’m having trouble trying to figure out what I can do to make a change.”

“There’s no one solution or one right way to fix the issues we’re discussing; there are no definitive answers.”

“Since the start of this school year, I feel like I’m more aware of the issues, but I don’t have a straight ‘answer’ as to whether something is good or bad.”

Reading these comments, a reasonable person might ask what the value of my class is if it seems to leave students more confused than before. But, this is, in fact, one of my goals: I hope students leave the course with more questions than answers and I’ve told them as much. The art of crafting a critically insightful question is a valuable skill. And, by engaging students in the process of question creation and posing, I am attempting to shift the dynamic in the classroom from one in which I, the professor, am positioned as having the answers, to one in which the students assume responsibility for our joint learning and question whether or not such a thing as the answers even exists in the realm of educational equity. To me, this is moving towards Freire’s vision of teaching and learning as joint processes, neither of which pertains entirely to the “teacher” or the “student” and can be transformative for all involved.

Engaging students as course co-constructors was a prominent theme at the 2014 ISSOTL (International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning) Conference that I had the opportunity to attend. Presenters emphasized that by drawing more on the students’ own knowledge, skills, and interests, they were able to build stronger classroom community, foster leadership among undergraduates, and, ultimately, increase student learning. This all sounds great, but can be tricky with millennials who have been characterized as risk averse and “conventional.” (Some argue that No Child Left Behind has had a major impact on this, since today’s undergraduates are the first generation to be educated fully under this testing-focused educational legislation.)

So, what are some practical ways for pushing students out of their comfort zones and more into course co-constructor roles? Here are a few ideas from the ISSOTL Conference and my own practice:

  • Focusing on questions: As mentioned above, getting students to focus on questions, rather than answers, can be very effective in investing them as course co-constructors. One way to build a classroom culture around this is on the very first day. Many professors ask students to introduce themselves in some way at the beginning of the term. Simply by asking the students to share a question they hope to ponder together as a class, and then returning to these questions as foci for the semester can help students become more comfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing the “right” answers and more committed to a joint exploration.
  • Bringing students’ worlds to class: Our students’ worlds are increasingly virtual and knowledge is proliferating at an unfathomable rate. For some of our content areas, this means the standard vocabulary and readings may be behind the times for our students. Jessica Birthisel at Bridgewater State University described having students in her gender and media class create their own course glossary using social media tools. Students identified and defined terms such as “basic girl” and “ratchet culture” and related those to the course. These terms are changing constantly and, thus, by having students create their own living glossary, the class was able to have deeper, more relevant discussions.


In my own classes, I regularly offer extra credit to students for emailing me a “media of the week” item. This can be a song, a cartoon, a meme, a news article, etc. that relates to our course topic for a given week. I then share the “media of the week” with the class, asking the student volunteer to describe the connection and asking other class members to comment on the relatedness to course concepts. Sometimes the connections are stronger than others, but the effect is that students begin to look for and see patterns in their own lives that reinforce course learning.

  • Students as observers: Another ISSOTL session focused investing students as partners in learning offered that students can serve as class observers and provide feedback. One way I have used this in my practice is by assigning one or two students to be “process observers” for the week. Process observers were to take note of how we worked together as a class—for example, were we sharing speaking time, were most people actively engaged in the class activities—and then report out at the end on what they had noted and where we might improve for the following week. This had the effect of repositioning me as not solely responsible for the success (or failure) of a given class session and increased our joint learning capacity by demonstrating to students how integral their contributions were to our community.

There are myriad other ways to and reasons for investing students as course co-constructors. Engagement through Partnership: Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education is a great tool for getting started.

What are ways you have engaged students as course collaborators and what have the outcomes been?


Deckman, S. (2013). Asking the Right Questions Versus Knowing the Right Answers. Education Week.

DePaul Teaching Commons. Teaching Millennial Students.

Healy, M., Flint, A. & Harrington, K. (July 2014). Engagement through Partnership: Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.  The Higher Education Academy. Downloaded @

Williams, A, Verwoord, R, Beery, T., Dalton, H., McKinnon, J., Strickland, K., Pace, J.& Poole, G. (2103). The Power of Social Networks: A Model for Weaving the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning into Institutional Culture Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal
(1)2,pp. 49-62.  Downloaded @

1 Comment so far

  1. It’s really interesting to hear about the SOTL material, but even more how you’re making that visible and active in your courses. In terms of engaging students in asking questions, I found Stuart Firestein’s TED Talk “The Pursuit of Ignorance” a great way to open up the conversation about this. I had both my Ithaca Seminar students and my 200-level research writing students watch and write and talk about this last fall. Sharing my own ignorance is always a great way to encourage students to be co-constructors of the course, because then they’re teaching ME. I may be a subject expert in processes of writing and how to navigate higher education, but I’m rarely a subject expert in what students are writing about, especially in 200-level courses. I love learning what they have to tell me.


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