Exploring Student-Designed Curriculum

On Thursday, two students and I will present a workshop on “Exploring Student-Designed Curriculum” at the Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning.  If you’ll be at the conference, please join us!

We hope to take UDL’s “multiple means” to a new level: how much of the curriculum can students design themselves?  Beyond letting students choose how they engage, to what extent can we empower students to choose what they engage with? For a more detailed exploration of how this connects to UDL philosophy, see my previous post.

Why Should Students Design the Curriculum?

Tim Bargen, one of the students with whom I’ve co-designed this workshop, offers a few thoughts.

“I don’t usually have [trouble getting engaged]; usually it’s the opposite, unless I’m depressed.  It’s not that I don’t care; it’s that the lab gave me an idea and now I’m cruising eBay looking for parts for some project, or busy tracking rabbits on Wikipedia.”

That degree of focus has made school itself an obstacle for Bargen, who describes his previous experiences with school as “depressing.”  “When I have trouble getting motivated, it’s that I’m already too far behind” because of time spent on work that can’t be submitted for credit.

“I’ve failed/withdrawn from several university programs, with this downward spiral of decreasing engagement being a major contributor. More recently, I had an instructor who was aware and understanding of this difficulty. I believe that this was at least partially responsible in (somewhat) preventing the downward spiral and decreasing engagement. Obviously, experience, ‘maturity’, medication… all had a part to play here as well, but I still think this had a significant impact. I often have difficulty falling asleep; likely something like Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder. Rather than being awake all night doing unrelated activities,  I often spent that same time interacting with the course material.”

What do we mean by “Student-Designed Curriculum,” and how do we do it?

We’ll describe 3 main techniques from the point of view of the instructor and the students, give participants some time to try one of those techniques, and then take questions.  You can follow the structure of the workshop using the handout, in DOC or PDF format.

1. Question-Generating Exercises

Description and Example (screencast of handout pp 2-3)

A caterpillar named Earl
Earl the caterpillar is a battery powered play-dough-creation with glowing spots and a spinning tail. He was a fruitful question-generating exercise.

We work through question-generating exercises at the beginning of the year, and throughout the year.  A good exercise is one that

  • can be explored independently by students with rudimentary skills (“low floor”)
  • can incorporate knowledge and experience of students with prior exposure (“high ceiling”)
  • allows students to generate questions about the course topics at their own level of complexity

In our field, a good example is “Squishy Circuits” — where students make working circuits out of playdough. In the workshop, participants will have a change to explore Question-Generating Exercises in their own domain.

2. Comprehension Constructor

Description and Example (Screencast of handout pp 6-10)

As the instructor, I assess all student work according to the same criteria, which are format-independent. My criteria are:

  • Do you have two convergent pieces of evidence that back up your point?
  • Are they clear enough to you that you can summarize them?
  • Has at least one of them been reviewed by an expert?
  • Can you connect it to your own experience, in or out of school?
  • Can you share how you visualize or otherwise imagine it?
  • Can you answer the question “how much?”
  • Can you answer the question “what causes it?”
  • Is it coherent with other things you have learned?

Your criteria will be different; the point is to have some, and use them consistently; Cris Tovani calls this a Comprehension Constructor.  This removes the burden of creating a new rubric for every new thing a student decides to do.  In the workshop, we will present example templates and invite participants to design their own.

3. Question-Tracking Spreadsheet

Description and Example (screencast of handout pp. 13-14)

Any question that comes up, either as part of an assignment, or during class discussion, gets added to a tracking spreadsheet.  When students are ready for a new topic, they choose from the spreadsheet.  Of course, it falls to the instructor to decide whether to offer the entire list to choose from, or to triage the questions according to which topics are required for the course and which are optional. I might also filter them according to whether they lend themselves to experiment or research, and break large questions down into smaller parts.

The spreadsheet also allows me to keep track of how well various activities do at generating questions, and on what topics.  That helps me design good Question-Generating Exercises for the beginning of the next year.  I will demonstrate the spreadsheet I use, and invite participants to consider how they might adapt it in their work.

We look forward to meeting you and exploring these topics together.  See you soon!

Workshop Handout


Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking

How I Chose my Criteria for Critical Thinking

Discovery Learning and Teaching, David Hammer

My review of Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, by Cris Tovani

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