Student-Faculty Partnership: Curriculum Development at SoH
NTU Language and Communication Centre (LCC)
Margaret Louise Devadason & Kristina Marie Tom
What would a course look like if it were designed collaboratively by students and faculty members? In May 2018, NTU’s Language and Communication Centre (LCC) hosted a conference to discover just that.
Headed by Principal Investigator Kristina Tom and her co-Principal Investigators Christopher Hill and Steven Adam, the conference was entitled ‘Student-Faculty Partnership: Co-designing the Curriculum’ and was held at the LCC Communication Cube at The Hive. It brought together students, faculty, NTU librarians and the LCC’s course design team to work on HW0205: Academic Communication in the Humanities, a communication skills course for first-year English, History and Philosophy students. Over three days, a total of 26 participants representing five different groups across the Humanities at NTU (that is, three disciplines, one centre and one library team) worked together in a series of talks, workshops and discussion groups.
Over the course of the conference, students and faculty members of varied backgrounds had the chance to collaborate as equal partners, each with different but valuable experiences, perspectives and expertise to contribute. Participants parsed course feedback previously collected via surveys, brainstormed ideas for the next year’s course guide and identified ways in which university writing programmes could better address student needs in general.
There is a growing field of inquiry, largely situated in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, into the potential benefits of student-faculty partnership. However, little research on this has been carried out in an Asian context, with much existing research coming from the UK, Australia and the United States. The conference was thus a fairly novel one for Singapore.
In addition to creating an opportunity for dialogue between students and faculty, the conference was a form of action research, a process of inquiry conducted by and for investigators (typically educators) into a particular process (in this particular instance, curriculum development). The curriculum team’s approach to gathering course feedback from stakeholders in an ongoing review of the course is also informed by research on needs analysis, a term that applied linguists use to describe the work done to understand learners’ needs while designing a course. As PI Kristina Tom explained,
We hope that combining student-faculty partnership and needs analysis might allow us to recommend best practices for both.
On the first day of the conference, students, faculty members and professors shared their experiences with the course, as well as their individual views on the writing skills that students need to have and how they can best acquire them. Together with the course designers, the students examined the results of a post-course survey, identifying the areas of the course which needed the most work and which they felt most able to improve.
In a panel talk featuring Assistant Professors Christina Chuang (Philosophy), Jessica Hinchy (History), and Samara Cahill (Literature), panelists shared with students their own experiences with academic writing, struggle and even failure, reinforcing a sense of common experience. Following this, students broke out into small groups to address discipline-specific concerns with faculty members, with the aim of better understanding the needs of each particular discipline and how these might be better met by the HW0205 course.
After this, a panel talk on interdisciplinary writing was helmed by Assistant Professors Graham Matthews (English), Michelle Chiang (English), Park Hyung Wook (History), and Lecturer Melvin Chen (Philosophy). The discussion paid particular attention to the relevance of interdisciplinary writing to students at the undergraduate level, and how that relevance may change over the course of their academic careers.
On the second day of the conference, students worked in mixed-discipline groups, each focusing on specific portions of the curriculum. With support from the course designers and a set of curated reference materials provided by a team of NTU librarians, each group of students made concrete suggestions for ways in which the course could be improved, incorporating the results of their discussions on the first day.
On the third and final day of the conference, the students presented the results of their group work to an audience of faculty members from the School of Humanities, Language and Communication Centre, and the School of Art, Design and Media. Many groups chose to redesign aspects of the course, from tweaking the presentation and layout of existing content, to creating entirely new classroom activities and readings.
In a closing focus group facilitated by Dr Peter Looker, head of NTU’s Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy Division (which also provided the EdeX grant that allowed for the conference and its related research), student participants reflected on their experiences during the conference. There was a general sense among the students that being treated as equal partners is an experience that is not commonly found in Singapore, but a welcome one. ‘We only talk to our professors in the lecture format, and we only see them in the front of the lecture theatre or auditorium, so it’s still a little bit of distance, as compared to here, where you sit at a circular table, and everyone has to contribute something. It’s a really different experience,’ said Cleo Tan, a conference participant and second-year English student.
I think it was really really productive, a very thought-provoking kind of conversation. You sit down together to solve this common problem. – Cleo Tan
There was also some discussion of how the process could potentially be replicated for other courses offered at NTU, with the hopes of improving both student-faculty communication and course design. Several conference participants expressed their hope that opening such opportunities for dialogue would help to create real and meaningful change where necessary for all involved in the teaching and learning process. Bryan Tan, a conference participant and second-year History student, expressed his desire for a repeat of the conference, saying, ‘I feel that the syllabus should constantly change, because there’s no one size fits all, and what we might overlook now might be picked up by other batches. And they’ll be like, “Oh what actually worked two years ago isn’t really working now.”’
Previous research into the use of student-faculty partnership has found a variety of positive outcomes, including increased student engagement, the production of improved curriculum materials, greater confidence and self-awareness amongst students and the development of metacognitive learning, or awareness on the part of a learner of how they are learning. Feedback from both faculty and student participants of the conference was likewise positive, and based on preliminary data, the team’s researchers are optimistic about the potential value of student-faculty partnership in the Singapore context. Leong Jia En, a conference participant and second-year student in English, commented on how the conference created ‘a very conducive environment for people to help make the course a better course’. She also pointed out that the collaborative nature of the conference allowed for a reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship between students and faculty: ‘I really really enjoyed it. I went home quite excited about the whole thing. I was telling my parents I felt like I was gaining a lot and I was like, “Hmm, how can I give back more.” I’m really thankful for the opportunity.’
Following the conference, several of the student participants were hired to work as consultants, continuing their work on the course materials even after the conference had ended. Their recommendations for change, in tandem with work produced at the conference, have already led to improvements in the current AY’s version of the course, with more changes slated to be implemented in future iterations of the course. This process of partnership is one that will continue and hopefully expand over the months and years to come, and the research team will be sharing preliminary findings with interested colleagues at TLPD’s Learning and Teaching Conference: from Good to Great in March.
What would it be like if our courses were designed collaboratively by students and faculty members, with room for open communication and greater trust between all parties? We hope to find out together.