Media, Technology, and Education
First Year SeminarIntegrated ClustersOpen Pedagogy

Getting Students to “Own” Their Education

The most exciting aspect of the integrated cluster initiative for me is the idea that we will redesign our classes to provide students with experiences that will encourage (require? is this something we can require?) them to “own” their educations. That is, we want students to be actively engaged in the learning experience so that they can articulate their individual educational story and in fact, they have made active choices to create that story. It is this goal that caused the redesign of the First Year Seminar (FYS) to focus on a wicked problem and will require students to work on projects that engage with the outside world in some way. We want students to do work that matters rather than work that is seen by an instructor and then thrown away.

Because I’m so excited about this idea, I decided to use open pedagogy to teach my two sections of FYS this semester. I did not “design” the class before it started. I created a syllabus with a bare minimum of items on it and have been working with my students to fill in the rest. For example, I have no idea (still!) how the students’ final grades will be determined in the class but have been working with the students to figure this out.  Our own Robin DeRosa and her co-author Scott Robison have explained this better than I can: “We can ask our students — and ourselves as faculty — not just to deliver excellence within a prescribed set of parameters, but to help develop those parameters by asking questions about what problems need to be solved, what ideas need to be explored, what new paths should be carved based on the diverse perspectives at the table.” If students are developing the parameters of the class, they are taking responsibility for the learning that they will do in the class. They are determining the ideas that we should explore and the problems we should solve. They are owning their educations.

Two weeks into the semester and I’m still really excited about this experiment. But I also feel challenged like I have never been challenged before in my teaching. There are so many places where I feel out of my element. Giving up the control I usually have in the classroom is uncomfortable, both for me and for the students. They aren’t used to it either. The biggest challenge is around goals because there is an inherent conflict between pre-set course goals (which the FYS has) and allowing students the kind of voice that DeRosa and Robison describe. For example, one of the goals of the FYS is that at the end of the course, students will understand the purpose of general education as well as how PSU’s particular general education program works. In trying to work with students to design a set of learning activities that would allow them to meet that goal, it became clear that they have no idea what general education even is, never mind what the purpose might be. How do I provide enough guidance that they understand what they’re trying to learn but no so much guidance that I’m completely directing the learning experience? I don’t know yet. So I decided to skip that particular goal for the time being. I’ll come back to it when the students have a pressing need to think about general education–when they’re getting ready to register for their Spring semester courses.

There are five other goals in the course, all of which I think can be achieved by the students while they’re working on projects that address the wicked problem of “fake news” (the topic of my sections of the course). So I started by asking the students what kinds of projects they wanted to work on. They came up with some fun activities. As we talked about these activities, it became clear to me that they were mostly busy work not focused on really learning anything about fake news and what we might do about it. The activities were also not focused on any of the other five goals of the class. I might have them try out some of these activities to get them to understand that we should think about our goals as we design our activities. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

But first I decided to shift gears a little bit. I had been trying to get students to think about these abstract goals and come up with some detailed activities to meet them. When I was teaching computer science, I realized that most people don’t learn well when they start with the abstract and then have to go to the detail or the concrete. In programming classes, for example, I would create assignments whose solutions would require the particular detail (say, if statements) the students needed to learn. The students could learn the detail in the context of the problem they were trying to solve. I would then help them understand the abstract concept (conditional execution of code) that they needed to learn.

Remembering this, in the FYS, I decided to move away from the abstract goals toward detailed activities. I designed a couple of these activities. First, I had the students do a mind mapping exercise using some guided questions about how fake news works. We then created a list of the areas where they felt they had gaps in their knowledge. It is a great list! These are potential areas for further exploration and research around which we can design other activities. I was interested to hear about the areas that they felt they had complete knowledge and think that as they learn more about fake news, they’ll see that their knowledge is actually pretty far from complete. The next activity I designed is to bring a fake news article to class on Monday and answer some questions about it. One question is how they know it’s fake. I think these articles will allow us to have a great conversation about credible and reliable sources of information and will generate more ideas about gaps in their current knowledge. One of the goals of the course has to do with information literacy which includes the ability to find credible and reliable sources of information. So we’ll kind of back into the goal and talk about it after they’ve achieved some level of competence with it rather than starting with the goal before they’ve thought about it at all.

The most exciting thing about assigning this activity to them for Monday is that one of my students said, “Really? YOU’RE assigning this to us?” He said this with a knowing look indicating that he recognizes the contradiction given the open pedagogical nature of the class. I laughed and said, “I’m just being the ‘guide on the side,'” which is a phrase we talked about when discussing the role of a teacher in the classroom. It’s the first sign that they are (at least he is) starting to understand what we mean when we say “own your education.” Progress!

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. lizahl

    When I taught FYS, I found that linking up the general education piece to scheduling/registration stuff, it made a huge positive difference. This could be another practical reason to have FYS instructors do first year advising with their FYS students.

  2. Ann McClellan

    I have been struggling so much with my open ped this semester in Digitalit as well! I’ve had nightmares dreaming about spot quizzes because I’m anxious they’re not doing the reading, but they haven’t said that doing the reading or being accountable for stuff like that is important for their learning (yet). We’ve also struggled with how to design course goals and learning outcomes about content they know nothing about. It takes a TON of time, makes me hugely anxious, but I keep trying to resist my typical impulses. 🙂

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