Giving students some control over their own learning

There was an interesting column written by Jim Lang over at the Chronicle Vitae website this week. Any column that starts with a photo of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is alright in my book! The content of his post “Small Changes in Teaching: Giving Them a Say”  is part of a series that Dr. Lang has been writing over the past several weeks.

In his post he explains the two ways that students often approach their learning. Some students are oriented towards performance and want to excel on activities that result in a good grade (e.g. tests, assignments, etc.). Other students are mastery-oriented learners and enjoy learning for learning’s sake. I would prefer to have mastery-oriented learners in my courses.

One way to do this is to give your students choices and allow them some control over their own learning process. I tried this as an experiment in my course during the Fall 2015 term, but this was before I’d read Jim’s column obviously. I was looking to give my students options in terms of how they would be evaluated in the course in the hopes that it would lead to better engagement in class and with the material. It was my hope that students would self-select the evaluation method that would make them more comfortable and that this would be reflected in the course grades.

For this particular class I offered two evaluation options. All students had to complete one term test, five 10 minute in-class essays, and a protist trading card during the first two months of the term. During the second half of the term, students could either take a second term test (Option #1) or they completed a group case study presentation and two take home essays (Option #2). I think that this option allowed my students the ability to play to their strengths and perhaps avoid their weaknesses. Out of a class of 60 students, 36 chose Option #1 and 24 chose Option #2. Based on the written feedback that I obtained on course evaluations the students really appreciated having a say in the criteria used to evaluate them in the course. I consider this experiment a success and will likely use it again.

After reading Jim’s post I think that I could take this approach a step further and he gives some excellent examples worth thinking about.

 

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One thought on “Giving students some control over their own learning

  1. This is great, thanks for sharing your experience! I did something similar for the participation component in one of my courses this term. The students had to collect 15 points by completing various activities (forum posts, attending public lectures/open houses, in-class mini-labs, in-class group work,etc). I also received positive feedback about this, and will try to incorporate it as much as possible.

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