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Published January 21, 2021 | Multidisciplinary

Empowering Students with Flexibility, Choice and Voice

Designing courses to be inclusive for students with differing needs can be puzzling for teachers. Patrick Savard from Champlain Saint Lawrence is using inclusive design in his Pre-University Long Fiction class, allowing students to choose the novels they study and using education technology to provide a voice for even the most timid students. Patrick is even involving the students in choosing how they will be evaluated! The result? Engaged students who actively invest themselves in their course work.

Patrick requires his students to read and analyse 4 novels in his course. While he lectures on each novel on a rotating basis, students are required to produce blogs using the user-friendly and ad-free Weebly website building tool and use LEA discussion forums as a means of discussing these novels.

Genesis of the project

A few years ago, Patrick was one of the teachers who volunteered to provide distance education to Saint Lawrence’s student athletes whose training and competition schedules demanded greater flexibility. As an example, the Saint Lawrence Gators golf team would spend a whole month in Florida training during the winter semester and could only continue their studies with a distance education option.

Although these distance courses are no longer provided by the college, Patrick realized that greater flexibility can provide a number of benefits for his students.

Patrick participated in a research project on EESH students and inclusive pedagogy some years ago, and he developed a teaching approach that integrated some of the principles of the “Gator courses,” which was the subject of an article he contributed to Profweb in 2018. Since then, the college has received additional funding from ECQ in 2019-2020 to research ways to enhance the approach with principles of universal design. In collaboration with Champlain Saint Lawrence’s Pedagogical counsellor Claudine Gélinas-Faucher, he has developed a blended version of the Pre-University Long Fiction course in 2020 that uses both elements of in-class meetings and distance education elements.

In this new project, Patrick had a number of objectives to which he adhered:

  • The project must be student-centred.
  • The project will continue to use blogging for novel analysis.
  • Design of the course must be mindful of students with learning disabilities, eliminating hurdles and barriers to learning for all students.

Adhering to universal design principles

The number of students with learning difficulties has steadily increased in the past few years, and Patrick tries to design his courses to avoid having to make specific accommodations for these students. Patrick was greatly influenced by the book Learner-Centered Teaching by Terry Doyle. In the book, Doyle speaks about empowering students, and Patrick noticed the student-centred approach shares a number of principles with Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

In 2018, Patrick began turning his course upside down to move the focus from wall-to-wall lecturing to a more student-centred approach. This involved reviewing the competency for the course, a step which Patrick feels is crucial for teachers to keep their course on-track:

We need to go back to the competencies... If we don’t go back to such competencies and reflect on how the competency can be achieved, we never will get out of the habits that we have of believing that the lecture is the only format by which students learn.

Patrick Savard

Asking students to produce an online blog about the novels they study and to participate in exchanges on discussion forums allows students to have a voice and to express themselves. Students may work harder in his course, but Patrick surveys his students on a regular basis and notes that they appreciate the approach in the classroom despite the additional effort.

Students can choose from novels from the gothic, western and realist genres among others (Credit: Laura Chouette on Unsplash)

Offering choice to students

The first novel is mandatory and chosen by Patrick. He then allows students to choose the next three novels they will study from different lists of works including western, gothic and realist genres among others. Patrick believes that offering students the choice of novels provides multiple benefits:

  • Students will be more interested if they choose the novel.
  • Students with higher anxiety tend to be less anxious when they choose the novel.
  • Students from different programs of study can choose novels that are most relevant to their field of study.

For logistical reasons, if fewer than 3 students choose a particular novel, they are advised that they must choose another novel in order to ensure that discussions about the novel are dynamic, with a sufficient number of participants.

Patrick spends half of each class meeting lecturing on each possible novel, covering each novel on a rotating basis. This ensures that all students have a course meeting with him each week, which helps to maintain their motivation.

Use of on-line technologies

Back when Patrick was teaching the “Gator” course, he noticed that his shyer students would use the chat functionality liberally in the online synchronous learning platform that the college was using at the time. He felt this could be a way to get all of his students talking and engaged in the course.

Patrick uses the discussion forum in the LEA platform at his college to replicate the dynamic of the chat functionality in the early Gator courses.

Students post their thoughts on the novel The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham in the LEA discussion forum.

The point of the forum is for students to think about the novels. In the forum, they are required to post questions and respond to the questions of others. Thus, while Patrick is lecturing on a novel a student has not chosen, he expects the student to continue posting to the forum asynchronously. Students are also required to write 3 blog posts in Weebly on each novel. These posts are evaluated based on questions and criteria that Patrick has predetermined.

Patrick participates actively in the discussion forums, responding to questions and advancing the discussion. In fact, he feels that this activity is crucial to demonstrate to the importance of participation to students.

Another dimension of the course is a first research project in which the students are asked to consult Patrick’s own web page on Weebly. The web page contains an extensive preliminary bibliography of resources on the novels that were part of the first set of options offered to the students. Many types of resources are found on the web page, from essays on the books to virtual museum visits to songs. Besides the forum contribution, this first research project requires students to choose a certain number of resources to read, watch or listen to, and then to produce a written report of their findings, along with suggestions of additional resources that they believe should be listed on the web page.

The final research project in Patrick`s hybrid course takes students one step further as he asks them to emulate his web page as they produce their own individual web page on Weebly. As he has done on his own page, the students must first prepare a preliminary bibliography of interesting resources on the last novel they read for the course. Then, they must also develop their own critical material in the various forms.

Students use the Weebly platform to create their own webpages for the final project.

Patrick insists on the students providing the reader of their web page with professionalism, with quality and with a variety in content. This allows students to express themselves in as many ways as they like and to use their strengths while covering the material for the course. This has led to some interesting results. For example, some students composed lyrics to a rap song on Shelley’s Frankenstein, others recorded a video on cooking Native American bread while explaining how that bread was essential to a specific tribe found in a novel that was read in class, etc.

Establishing evaluation criteria with students

At the beginning of the semester, Patrick works with students to identify how they will be evaluated. Initially, Patrick says that it was scary to empower students to the extent that they determined how many times they would be evaluated as well as the weighting and phrasing of the criteria. He was worried that students would eliminate evaluation criteria he felt they should keep. For this reason, he announced that he kept veto rights should the group make decisions that did not work.

In the end, students chose pretty much the same evaluation that Patrick had planned without him having to prompt them. This meant that he didn’t have to veto the student’s choices!

Patrick is thankful for the assistance of fellow teacher and Profweb editor Andy Van Drom, who helped Patrick to conceive different ways to evaluate student contributions on forums. Andy was also extremely helpful in recommending Weebly and providing Patrick with technical support and advice.

With the amount of activity in the discussion forum, it is important to keep things simple. The idea is to develop a rubric for evaluating forum contributions with only 2 or 3 criteria to make it easier to evaluate. The criteria may be as simple as “student has done the work” and “student has shown evidence of critical thought.” It doesn’t need to be complicated. Students should be informed of when they are expected to submit a post and the frequency of such posts.

As for the web page project, its evaluation is twofold. On the one hand, Patrick uses a rubric to evaluate the students individually. On the other hand, the students are asked to evaluate another student's web page and provide the person with comments. This allows all students to receive feedback from someone else than the teacher, and it also allows Patrick to see how critical the students are.

The power of experimentation

For the Fall 2020 semester, Patrick continued his experimentation and feels that the semester went well. The results of the project will be detailed in a research report he is preparing for the ECQ.

Other teachers at Champlain Saint Lawrence have increasingly been soliciting Patrick to learn more about the approach he is using, and he has some sage words of advice to encourage other teachers who are interested developing inclusive approaches and ceding some control to students:

Don’t be afraid to work without a net when it involves empowering students.

Patrick Savard

About the Author

Patrick Savard has been teaching English at the college level for 17 years. He has taught all the core courses as well as developed a number of complementary courses and courses in the Arts and Letters program at St. Lawrence. He is constantly looking for ways to engage students in their learning, and recently came across Student Centered Pedagogy. He is now exploring how to use this theory in his courses.

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