Is “negotiated curriculum” a great way to increase your student engagement this fall?
Brenda Thomas, Director of the University Colloquium Program at Florida Gulf Coast University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about negotiating course curriculum with our students and the incredible engagement power of getting student buy-in up-front.
The Negotiated Curriculum Experiment
In a negotiated curriculum, you as the professor give students ownership of the curriculum. The goal is to create buy in and to increase learner engagement.
Colloquium, the course Brenda teaches, is a graduation requirement. It’s an interdisciplinary introduction to sustainability, and most students in the class are not environmental studies majors. They don’t think sustainability has anything to do with them, so most students come into it with some level of resistance. That’s not uncommon. All students resist some course, whether it’s biology, economics, or sociology. But there is a way to overcome that friction — negotiate the curriculum.
Does seem like a falsely optimistic idea that’s easy to talk about but impossible to implement? For example, how do you maintain academic governance as a professor while getting learner buy-in and keeping the course relevant?
“It’s not a free for all,” Brenda said. “Students are not just picking and choosing randomly.”
In fact, most students seem more than a little mystified when Brenda explains the negotiated curriculum concept on the first day of class. They’re accustomed to walking into a classroom and getting a set syllabus with a set schedule.
Brenda’s course doesn’t work that way. Over the first four or five weeks, she gives students the background information they need to understand sustainability. Then they have a planning day. She tells the students the things she believes are important, what the textbook covers, and what they need to speak intelligently to.
“If you rely on me to pick course content,” Brenda tells her students, “you’re going to get an environmental focus because that’s my background competency.”
But since she teaches an interdisciplinary course, students can focus their learning objectives and activities on their own interests, majors, or careers and discover how sustainability applies to them. They do have some constraints, but within those, they also enjoy a great deal of freedom.
The first time she experimented with a negotiated curriculum, Brenda had her students picked topics and timelines in which to learn about them. “In all honesty,” she told us, “the topics that they picked were not any different than the topics that I would have picked. The difference was they didn’t know that.”
A subsequent class, however, was much more engaged from the start and picked a wide variety of sustainability-related topics — often choosing things Brenda had little background in. “I would warn them, ‘If you pick outside of the things that I have a decent knowledge about, you guys are going to have to help me figure out what to do with this’. And they didn’t hesitate. They took me in a direction that I never would have gone on my own.”
Does Negotiated Curriculum Improve Student Learning?
Right now, negotiated curriculum is a research project, so Brenda is gathering data. She used an agentic engagement scale to conduct a survey on the first day of class, after the planning day, and then on the last day of class.
Her tool is a validated survey that’s in the literature, and it assesses student engagement, specifically engagement related to student autonomy and agency. The test results showed that engagement definitely improved.
Brenda also tracked the feedback she received in the university’s standard end-of-semester survey along with anecdotal evidence from students. All the data showed exactly what Brenda hoped for. Students said things like:
- This made me more engaged.
- I wanted to learn about the topics.
- It made me want to come to class because we were learning things that I chose.
Next Steps to Creating a Negotiated Curriculum?
If you want to experiment with a negotiated curriculum, start small. And remember that some courses lend themselves better to this model than others. Sustainability is a broad topic that can involve many diverse perspectives. In a mathematics class, on the other hand, obviously you don’t want students negotiating some things.
“But I think there are still other ways that you can include negotiation,” Brenda said. “I taught a course on tree rings in the environment. Dendrochronology, we were doing tree ring analysis. And there was a lot of that curriculum that I didn’t feel that students could negotiate, but I gave them other things that they could negotiate with me.”
For example, she gave students flexibility with their final lab report format, let them collect their own tree course, and offered them a chance to negotiate their writing assignments. There are lots of small ways to incorporate negotiation so you can create relationships with your students. Ultimately, this approach shows them that you respect them and believe they are able to contribute to their own learning.
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