In Freire for the Classroom, Ira Shor calls student alienation in education “the number one learning problem, depressing academic performance and elevating student resistance.” Shor advocates for a Freirean model of more dialogue and less teacher-talk in the classroom because “learning is not the transfer of skills and information from a talking teacher to a passive student,” in fact, this trickle-down model only further alienates students, exacerbates student retention issues, and leads to teacher burnout (26).
One easy way to prevent alienating students from their own education is to ask them what their goals are for a class. Most syllabi include some kind of language about a schedule being “subject to change” based on inclement weather, other unforeseen school closures, and, sometimes, the pacing of the course. It doesn’t take up much time on the first day of class to talk about learning goals, and even review and revise the Learning Outcomes together if you make them “subject to change” as well.
On the first day of class, use Think-Pair-Share: ask students what their goals are for the course; give them index cards and pencils or ask them to write down their goals in their own notebooks; set a timer or look at your watch and allow 90 seconds for students to think and write their ideas down.
If the class is small enough, everyone can share what they wrote down. You can write the goals on the board or invite students to stand and write their goals on the board. If you have a large group (more than 12), consider pairing students up to share their goals with a partner and then, in pairs, come up with one combined goal to share with the class. Allow about 90 seconds to 2 minutes for work in pairs, then ask pairs to share with the class.
Whether you get to everyone or not, every student has already written their thoughts down on paper and shared them with at least one peer. You’ve managed to achieve 100% participation in a discussion about goals for the class. You might also collect the index cards and read them before the next class if you can. Note: although it would be impossible for every student to speak in a class of 300 students, working in pairs can be done in a class of any size.
If there’s time left, use student goals to review and revise the Learning Outcomes together. Ask for student input, and propose some potential changes based on the goals they shared. This exercise demonstrates to students that they will be heard in your class, that you value their input, and that you’re willing to respond to their goals and objectives in the class.
Unfortunately, students aren’t heard often enough in higher education. They might need some help and will take cues from you. You will probably need to guide some students beyond goals like “get an ‘A’ in this class.” Try asking them bigger questions: “What do you want to learn in this class that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life?” or “What’s something that you’re not an expert in that you want to be an expert in after taking this class?”
Democratically co-creating learning outcomes with students, based on their goals for the class, situates them at the center of your pedagogy.
Even if you don’t have time on the first day to change the Learning Outcomes live in class, you can take their suggestions home, account for them by revising the Learning Outcomes accordingly, and hand out new and improved Learning Outcomes to students on the second day of class. While going over the new Learning Outcomes, you can comment on how you took different goals into account in your revisions. This will show students how you heard them, and demonstrate that their input makes a difference to you and to the class as a whole. Depending on the flexibility of your department and any course requirements, you might even take student goals further by revising some of the readings or assignments to account for the revised Learning Outcomes.
Learning Outcomes are often ignored, copied and pasted from sample syllabi, and left to the end. Yet what students take away from a course, what students remember and carry with them for the rest of their lives, matters a lot more in the long run than a letter grade. Listening to students, and showing them that you are listening, is key to engaging in a dialogue that goes both ways.