Higher education has historically dictated what students learn. Too often, this has meant that learners aren’t given the space to explore areas of interest or take on assignments that reflect their strengths and passions. This misses an important opportunity to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation—not through grades, but through autonomy, flexibility and giving learners more choice.
John Redden, Associate Professor-in-Residence of Physiology and Neurobiology at the University of Connecticut and Luke Green, Instructor of Communications Studies at St. Cloud Technical & Community College, recognized the challenge and the opportunity. Their ultimate goal was to give students more agency over their learning experience. To do so, they employed an approach called democratic course management, which makes ample use of many of the core facets of intrinsic motivation. Here’s how it works and the impact it’s had.
What is a democratic classroom?
Democracy in the classroom involves giving students a say in the sequence of lessons, the time dedicated to each learning unit and what shape your assessments take. Agency plays an enormous role in student persistence. Scholars including Dr. Robert Marzano, author of The Highly Engaged Classroom, note that increased choice often translates to greater effort and the willingness to go deeper with learning.1 This framework that Redden and Green use takes the emphasis off grades and points and makes learning more about the pursuit of knowledge. And the best part? Since forming a democratic classroom, these scholars have noted declining program fail rates and rising final grades.
Democracy in the classroom doesn’t mean sacrificing rigor or completely overhauling your course. Nor does it mean creating individual learning plans for your 200 students. It means taking thoughtful steps to honor and incorporate student voices into the DNA of your course. The end goal of a democratic classroom is to give students the ability to influence the curriculum, which in turn, helps students become more invested in the assignments and assessments they take on. “What democratic course management boils down to is giving students a voice versus me dictating a course policy on day one,” says Redden.
“What democratic course management boils down to is giving students a voice versus me dictating a course policy on day one.”
What prompted the shift to a democratic classroom
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum delivery that will serve every student. Today, community building and active learning are more than just buzzwords. Research shows that active learning increases student performance in STEM disciplines. Just as important, students are more likely to embrace a growth mindset in courses that use evidence-based teaching.
At the core of democratic course management is the desire to support equity and inclusion. For Redden, he noticed a concerning trend: students from historically underrepresented populations were dropping, failing or withdrawing from his course at higher rates than their white counterparts. It’s why he was determined to demonstrate to students that he recognized their needs and unique circumstances that too often prevented them from succeeding.
Democracy in the classroom in action
If you’re new to the concept of a democratic classroom, it’s best to take small steps versus plunging into the deep end. Depending on your comfort level, Redden and Green share how to incorporate student input to shape their course policies and assessments.
- Beginner | Flexible due dates: Formative assignments may be given flexible hand-in dates. Using this approach acknowledges that students may have competing priorities beyond academics and ensures that they’re given the space they need to produce their best work without the added pressure of a hard deadline.
- Intermediate | Expected range due dates: Let students decide what time frame is realistic for them to turn in their assessment or assignment. This forces them to be more accountable for the range they set.
- Expert | Democratic syllabus construction: Give students greater control over your course structure. Allow them to weigh in on assessment format and grade weights as it relates to an instructional unit or activity.
How Top Hat helps: Polls and discussions allow educators to gauge common areas of interest at the start of the term or learning unit. The results can be used to determine relevant course readings or assignment ideas that can be reflected in your syllabus.
- Beginner | Student-created learning assignment: Allow students to submit one or two potential quiz questions for your next assessment. You can incorporate the most effective questions, giving students a reminder that they have a stake in their learning.
- Intermediate | Opt-in formative assignments: Students may want extra opportunities to test their knowledge in advance of a larger assessment. This method allows learners to use additional assignments (that may or may not count for extra credit) to get comfortable with course concepts.
- Expert | Assignment menu: Students are given the freedom to choose what activities they would like to complete in your course. Your menu should have some non-negotiable activities—which students must complete—complemented by a few alternatives such as video diaries, written journals or verbal presentations to show what they know.
How Top Hat helps: Customizable assignments let faculty set flexible due dates and allow students to receive immediate feedback to help them correct their learning as they progress.
- Beginner | Re-submit assignments: Students don’t want one bad grade to bring down their average. Allow learners one opportunity during the semester to re-submit a formative assessment where they weren’t satisfied with their grade.
- Intermediate | Selecting grade weights: Let students have a say over how their grades are distributed. For instance, Redden allows students to weight some of their assignments all the way to 0 or near 0 percent. Doing so lets students choose between a formative assignment (such as a journaling exercise) or a high-stakes multiple choice assessment. They may still need to complete both but can decide how much they want each activity to count in terms of grade weight.
- Expert | Ungrading: Replace letter grades with more opportunities for feedback, collaboration and self-reflection. Put to practice, at the end of the term, you may ask students to submit a short letter reflecting on their progress in your course and assessments that are a particular point of pride.
How Top Hat helps: A comprehensive Gradebook enables faculty to set and edit grade weights based on student preferences. Grade weights can also be retroactively adjusted should students choose to re-write an assessment.
Redden is among the faculty who have taken steps towards student-centered pedagogy. He allows his 700 Anatomy and Physiology students to create their unique grading formula by adjusting the weight of assignments within a specified range. At the start of the semester, students input their anticipated grades and custom grade weights per assignment.
It’s important to note that the process lets Redden maintain some structure—for example, he allows individual exams to be weighted between 30 and 75 percent. The result? Custom grading led to a noticeable decrease in course failure, particularly among students from marginalized communities. Ultimately, Redden ensures his students are in control over how and where they spend their time in his course. “Some students might choose to focus on traditional tests. Others might choose to focus on a lower-stakes option like reading assignments or the laboratory component. In my system, students still have to do a small amount of everything, but how much each of those things count is really up to them,” says Redden.
As with any innovative pedagogy, your students want to see you as their ‘guide on the side,’ not a ‘sage on the stage.’ Give students some trust to decide how their learning takes place. This independent reflection and flexibility to pursue what’s of most interest to them personally will improve accountability and engagement by giving your students more skin in the game. As Redden and Green have found, these relatively small steps can make a huge difference on your engagement and retention rates in the long run. Plus, students are more likely to feel like valued members of a learning community when given an opportunity to influence class policies and assessments.
- Mulvahill, E. (2018). Understanding Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation in the Classroom. We Are Teachers. https://www.weareteachers.com/understanding-intrinsic-vs-extrinsic-motivation-in-the-classroom/