Students, when registering for a college course, usually assume they won’t have any input or control over how that course is shaped. This is likely because, in school, it’s standard practice for “teachers, not students, [to] generally control the questions, set the educational agenda, design the curriculum and determine its content and goals.”

To be sure, teachers making initial decisions about a course they are teaching makes perfect sense: “professors, as experts in their field, have a much better grasp of what learning the discipline might entail.” And those valuable ideas should shape the course to begin with. But when students aren’t ever invited into the decision making process, issues ensue. 

After years and years of students not being able to participate in forming a class they are taking (starting in primary school and on to secondary education and up to college), we see perhaps the biggest issue occur, which is that “without formal participation in decision-making, students develop as authority dependent subordinates, not as independent citizens.” How exactly does this happen? Students, in a teacher-led course, aren’t able to bring their unique ideas and perspectives to the table. No, they come to class to listen and to learn as they are told, and thus become disengaged because their input is not valued. Eventually, the rinse and repeat of not having any say in their own learning becomes too much. They cave in and forego any valuable input they might have had. The standard expectation students have, then, is that education will be done to them, not with them.

Student-centered classes, classes where everyone in the classroom is invited to configure the course in some way, however, are a sort of anecdote to the above issues, as students are able to democratically participate in their education. Teachers don’t lose control, but they simply distribute it amongst the students. Some educators even invite their students to shape the class before it starts. How? It’s nothing fancy, really, but it’s effective: having students fill out surveys before the course’s official start date, before the course begins.

In fall 2020—for my rhetoric and writing studies course—I experimented with this survey idea, and I was pleasantly surprised with how my students responded. 15 days before class started, I sent out a survey to all my students. As students turned in their answers to the questions, I made note of the ideas. Their responses, then, shaped the class in unique and personal ways. Here, I’d like to share a little about my survey experiment (some of the questions I asked, how my students responded, etc.). What I share is not meant to be a template of any sort; rather, it’s a draft that you might take and make your own to help the students of your class democratically participate in their educational experiences.

My survey was 10 questions in length, and I asked questions like “What name do you like to go by? Who are you as a writer? What’s one thing a teacher has done that has helped you learn? What’s one big thing I can do to help you be successful in this class?” Each of these questions allowed me to gain some understanding of my students before class officially began. I learned that some students didn’t like to write because of inauspicious experiences in high school. Others enjoyed writing, but not analytically because they “always missed things.” And some said they felt like writing is a challenge, no matter what they do. With statements like these, I got a sense of how my students viewed writing and how they viewed themselves as writers. This allowed me to start positively forming the conversations that I would eventually have with my students. And their answers to some other questions influenced other aspects of the class in beneficial ways. 

“What’s one thing a teacher has done that has helped you learn?” was an especially helpful question. I kept on receiving answers that related to communication. The students in my class were most successful when they had clear and open communication with their teachers. This concern is especially important now during virtual learning. Because of their responses, I decided to use Slack, a robust communication tool. Students were overwhelmingly happy, and they felt like I was available for any concerns or questions they had (during reasonable hours, of course).

Another few students responded to “what’s one big thing I can do to help you be successful in this class?” by asking for a space where they could view all upcoming assignments on the Canvas home page. Other students responded with how they wanted to receive feedback: they wanted “clear feedback that expressed how [they] could improve, not feedback that was confusing to figure out.” (I think this might have been in reference to comments they may have received in the past on their writing, comments like “Awk” or “Unclear.”) On the first day of class, I made it apparent to my students that their ideas were going to influence my decisions in the course. I think—and I hope—students saw how their contributions to the survey mattered. I took their responses seriously, and I made changes to my course based on their input. With their responses to questions like these, students, in a sense, were telling me the ways in which they liked to learn, how they learned best.

Ultimately, what I noticed from my students was commitment and engagement in the class that was quite strong, even given all the difficult circumstances outside of school. The engagement in the course could be related to a number of reasons, but I truly believe one of the biggest ones has to do with the fact that they experienced something different in this class. In this class, students were democratically engaged and influenced the course before it actually began.