Teacher-Student Co-Design for Campus-wide Challenges

Maha Bali describes a student-faculty co-design at the American University in Cairo last semester

Maha co-authored this post with Ayah Elewa, Electronics Engineering graduate from the American University in Cairo (student in Maha’s class and Student Technology Assistant at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the time of the experience discussed below). She blogs at http://writefullyayah.wordpress.com and tweets as @AyaH_Egypt.

In February 2018, the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) at the American University in Cairo (AUC) ran a Student-Faculty Co-Design session as part of a 15-year anniversary event for CLT. The idea for the session came from several brainstorming sessions conducted within the department and with Student Technology Assistants (STAs) who worked with us, to gauge student perspectives on how to best involve them. Particular faculty and their students were invited to participate in this two-hour facilitated session. Others led the design of the activity, but both authors were both involved in early brainstorming for it. Maha also attended as a faculty member, and invited interested students in her class to participate, which is how Ayah became involved.

The CLT website describes the activity as follows:

In many institutions of higher education, there are reports on perception and expectation gap between faculty and students that has been affecting student motivation and engagement. This co-design session brings both stakeholders to the same table, working together in small teams. Each team will be dissecting a challenge related to teaching and learning at AUC, and will work together with the facilitation of CLT to co-design creative strategies to overcome those challenges and explore opportunities and possibilities for innovation in the classroom. Outcomes of this session will be shared by CLT with the AUC Community.

Tables were set up for groups of 2-3 faculty to work with 3-4 students, such that each individual received a stack of cards with questions to fill out individually about themselves and the other stakeholder (i.e. students would answer questions about themselves and faculty, and vice versa for faculty). After the individual reflections, groups would share what they had written and discuss and probe deeper, and after this, discuss what were the most insightful and surprising findings for them, and what they might be interested in working on in future.

On her blog, Ayah reflected on this event, mentioning how challenging it was to consider the faculty member perspective:

I didn’t ever put my shoes in a professor’s shoes. In fact I’ve never given much thought to the fact that they might be motivated or not to come and teach.

Other students reflect on their blogs: Manar wrote “The Co-design Session was my first experience talking explicitly to professors about how I see the educational process and the flaws I see need to be modified,”” and Nourhal wrote “For me it was the first time that I get to sit with a professor on the same table and actually be able to talk and express my opinion to help them improve the learning experience of other students.” Nadeen found it “an interesting opportunity for me to look upon the professors’ points of view.” This indicates there is insufficient conversation on our campus about these important topics, particularly ones involving students and faculty working together.

One of the lightbulb moments that occurred in Ayah and Maha’s group was that faculty thought students were motivated by grades, but none of the students said about themselves that they were motivated by grades. Instead, students shared things like parental approval and teacher respect and appreciation – which are sometimes related to grades – but grades were not themselves a motivator. It was a reminder for all of us to dig deeper behind what seems apparent, and find the root causes. Despite the overall success and popularity of the event, one student’s blog shows that some faculty in her group responded to student comments sarcastically rather than empathetically, particularly with regards to why students show up late for 8:30am classes, or seem sleepy when they do show up.

Several students enjoyed the session and expected them to result in campus-wide change. Mirna overall felt the session “effectively broke the ice between both students and professors, bringing both of them to the same table, working together in small teams, discussing future plans and strategies that affect both” and she now expects “to see real positive outcomes and appreciated changes within classrooms…to experience a better innovated learning atmosphere within classrooms that involves a better understanding and healthier communication between students and professors”. Nourhal indicated a hope that “these insights make a difference in making students’ academic lives better”. Only Nadeen was skeptical, and asked whether “the solutions that we had figured out as a collaboration between the students and the professors are going to be applied later on in classes?”

Reflections and Improvements for Future Iterations

In hindsight, CLT should have set student expectations on what would happen to the results of the session: either a plan for disseminating findings via some written or oral form, or for example CLT workshops based on what was found, but students need to know that CLT probably has little power to change AUC policies or such.

Importantly: a few faculty seemed to not understand what empathetic interviewing entailed, and perhaps CLT facilitators should have introduced it at the beginning or had a facilitator at each table to help ensure everyone truly listened empathetically to each other, rather than getting defensive or potentially silencing each other (with faculty obviously holding more power than students in this context).

Both Maha and Ayah finished the event wishing more such sessions were conducted on a regular basis, and Ayah points out on her blog that it’s important to bring diverse students into such discussions with their own learning preferences. She also hoped more science and engineering faculty would participate.

Have you had meaningful student-faculty collaborations or events? Tell us in the comments!

Featured image from Pixabay under CC0 License