Beyond evaluations: Giving students the opportunity to work with teachers to shape their high school courses

iStock_000004896500XSmallStudents have little  input in their own education even though their perspectives differ considerably from  teachers and administrators, says a recent study in Educational Research.

In most fields and industries, consumers of everything from toothpaste to cars to hospital  services are consulted about how best to meet their needs and often are invited to engage in a process of “participatory design.”

The Educational Research study describes a format for giving high school students this same opportunity.  Schools and teachers often solicit the input of individual students in evaluations.  But this feedback is limited and does not create an opportunity for teachers and students to brainstorm and work together to improve a course.

“Excluding students from the instructional design process is common practice, although it is likely to have negative effects on the learning process,” the researchers write.  “On top of this, the sense of not being heard may have negative effects on student behaviors. It causes alienation, experiences of anonymity and powerlessness, which contribute to disengagement from school, with possible consequences such as truancy and dropping out of school.

“Student perspectives on lessons and teaching directly influence its effectiveness, because perceptions influence the nature and quality of learning and study behavior and eventually the learning outcomes.”

Too often, adults underestimate the ability of students to provide important insights and observations about their education, the study says.

The format for including students in  instructional design that is described in this study was tested in 2 Dutch schools and is based on ideas from  participatory design. The format includes the following features:

• A teacher meets with a small group of students rather than the whole class
• Students with  diverse views about the course are selected to participate
• A chair moderates the meeting so the teacher is more of a participant than a leader in the discussion
• Other students in the class who did not participate in the meeting give their reactions to the resulting proposals and recommendations.

Student selection

Six teachers who taught classes in economics, math and a foreign language volunteered to participate;  5 of the teachers were male and 1 was female. 

It is very important to include students with negative perspectives and high dissatisfaction in the meeting, not only to get their perspective but also because they are likely to benefit from participating, the researchers write.  About 2 weeks before the participatory design meeting, students filled out questionnaires about their feelings concerning the class.

Seven students were selected for each class, 2 who felt  positive about the class, 2 who felt negative and 3 who were neutral. The students were all approximately 16 years old. The meeting lasted for 50 minutes and took place during school hours.During the 1st stage of the meeting, the students and . teacher cooperatively listed all the positive and negative aspects of the course. Teachers were asked  to explicitly assure students that any criticisms of their courses would not have consequences for them.

A yellow ball and then a blue ball were rolled to members of the group to facilitate discussion. Individuals could catch the ball as much as they wanted but at least once. Anyone holding the yellow ball had to say something positive about the class and anyone holding the blue ball, something negative. Discussion of the positive and negative comments was not allowed until the 2nd stage of the meeting. Positive comments were written on green  cards, negative comments on red cards and other comments on orange cards.

The chair posted the comments on a big board to stimulate discussion, starting with the cards that had positive comments. In the 3rd stage of the meeting, for each orange and red card, students and the teacher discussed how  best to address the issues raised. The chair took notes on the suggestions that were made and posted those on the discussion board. Finally, the students and teacher were asked to formulate action points cooperatively. 

Summaries of the remarks and action points were given to other students in the class for their reactions. Upon reading the reports, some students commented they could already see their teachers implementing some of the recommendations, the study says.”Students experienced the atmosphere as pleasant, although some students understandably found it a bit stressful and uncomfortable, especially in the beginning,” the authors write. Teachers said they found students’ suggestions useful and some unexpected. A few of the students thought use of the balls was childish.

“An approach to participatory instructional design in secondary education: an exploratory study,” by Karen Konings, et al., Educational Research, Volume 52, Number 1, pps. 45-59.

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