Making the Shift – A First Attempt at Asking Students to Co-Create Their Learning Experience

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is a Biology Teacher in San Diego County. He is working to understand how he can improve the student experience for all students at his high school. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


personalized learningIf there was ever any doubt as to the importance of helping students personalize their learning experience, a recent conversation with a student convinced me of its dire need.

Over the summer, this student interviewed for an internship. The interviewer asked him to explain how he would organize a project for the company. Faced with that question, he froze, confused as to where he should begin.

After reflection, he realized that he had never needed to respond to this type of prompt in school as his teachers decided nearly all aspects within nearly every project. Teachers decided what task to complete, how to complete the task, how to demonstrate an understanding within the task, and on what audience (if any) the task must focus. This student didn’t know how to organize and critically think about information for the purpose of building knowledge. Education must help students truly engage in developing these skills by co-creating the learning experience.

In my previous blog post, I stated that throughout this year, I would focus on five of the eleven elements identified by Allison Zmuda (2015) in Learning Personalized. The five elements on which my classes are learning to co-create this year include: task, audience, process, feedback and demonstration of learning.

Setting Up The Challenge

Shifting the curriculum in the first unit seemed the perfect time to help students understand how to begin co-creating the learning environment. Therefore, using the first major project of the school year, my goal was to help students begin to think about communicating their developed understanding of chemistry content to a specified audience and determining the most effective method in which to communicate their understanding. The unit was introduced by explaining a problem that students would need to study and then propose a solution.

What Was Learned From The Experience?

Fifty-two of the 56 students in the course believed that focusing on a specific audience changed how they approached their learning. As an example, one student asked me if his procedure for the designed experiments was “okay.” The two-line procedure read:

“Step 1: Get materials. Step 2: Do the experiment.”

I asked him why the procedure was so vague to which he responded, “I know what I want to do. It’s in my head. There’s no need to write it down.” As a result, I decided that he would perform a different team’s designed experiment and the other team would perform his. The look on his face clearly indicated his thorough level of disgust but he sat down and began changing his procedure. I asked him why.

“Because other people aren’t in my head so I need to spell it out for them.”

The beauty of focusing on an audience became apparent when he began talking with the other team and asking if they understood his directions. The generated discussions forced the first student to identify areas he hadn’t clarified for himself helping to deepen his own understanding.

Many students noted that perspective mattered. While two different audiences may want to know how to help a child, a rescue worker may want to hear scientifically-worded instructions while the parents of the dehydrated child would not. Still other students realized that their method of communication required more than skill in the use of grammar and punctuation, main criteria often used to score their ELA writing.

These students indicated a need to organize their learning and produce coherent thoughts as their final product was going to be presented to an authentic audience in addition to the teacher. These students commented that the project’s authenticity placed more pressure on them to demonstrate that they learned and could transfer their knowledge. While not required, a number of students also interviewed firefighters or parents to better understand the perspective of the audience with whom they wanted to communicate.

Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of the task, audience, and format to demonstrate one’s learning did create anxiety. One student wrote, “For years we are taught that following rules and the format given is the only way to be successful, now we are being told to step out of the box. I was a little lost on how to begin. However, this method allows me a chance to explore my options and decide on what is the best possible way to present what I know.”

Still other students focused on the fear of grades or fear of responsibility:

  • “I think the teacher should tell and show the students exactly how to do the work so there is no question. I’ll get a good grade that way.”
  • “I like defined structure. If the teacher told me what to do, I would feel more confident in what I produce.”
  • “Indecisiveness plays a large role in my world.”
  • “All my other teachers tell me what to do and how to do it. Why should I be made uncomfortable in this class?”

But one student’s insight made it clear that this work is worth doing, “If the teacher ends up telling you how to do everything, you will never really understand why or what you’re doing because the teacher does most of the thinking and work for you.”

The same epiphany my student had at his failed summer internship interview.

We must co-create opportunities for students to engage in organizing knowledge and processes, to critically think and make sense of their learning, and to transfer their understanding to novel situations in order to effectively prepare them for their future.

What are you doing to help students co-create their learning experience? Post your insights below!

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