One of the aims of student-centered pedagogy is to diffuse authority in the classroom, so that the task of creating knowledge doesn’t only reside in the instructor, but is mutually created by the epistemic community of the classroom. One of the ways I manifest my commitment to student-centered learning is through student-led classes.
Here is the assignment as it appears on the syllabus: Group Presentation: You are responsible for leading class discussion in the last few weeks of the semester. You can choose the text(s) that you want the class to read, watch, or listen to, and before your presentation, you will submit a group lesson plan that includes discussion questions and your teaching notes (~3 pages).
I put this assignment into practice by devoting two weeks at the end of every semester to these student-led classes/group presentations. Students sign up for presentations based on topics that we come up with as a class. We devote half a class session to brainstorming possible topics related to the course. From the many topics students suggest we vote on the ones that strike students as most compelling. After narrowing the topics down to four or five, depending on class size, we brainstorm subtopics that can go under the larger topics we have selected.
A couple of weeks later, students are asked to sign up for the group/topic that is most appealing to them. Each group has 4-5 students, so that every student has the chance to make a meaningful contribution. I reserve one day of class for students to work together in their groups to brainstorm texts that they might assign and to discuss any questions or concerns they have about their possible selections with me. The class time is important for helping the groups create their own learning community. After this, students work on this project outside of class.
Finally, we arrive at the presentations. Students have the freedom to structure the class in any way they choose. Often, they model their pedagogy on what they have seen me do in the classroom, but sometimes, they come up with their own strategies for the most effective way to get the class involved in the discussion they seek to cultivate. They are graded on their lesson plan (submitted prior to the class they lead and the effectiveness of the in-class engagement they are able to cultivate through their pedagogy).
What I have learned from being part of the learning communities that my students create is their rigorous approach not only to the texts that they have selected but also to creating knowledge that will contribute to the broader inquiry of the course. I’ve seen students draw connections between their topics and prior readings in the course as well as the topics covered by other groups. The presentations are an opportunity for students to exhibit their commitment to our epistemic community. Student-led classes are a joy because of how intellectually enriching they are and because I get to see my students have a stake in the process of making knowledge.
I encourage anyone who can to try student-led classes. I also recognize the privilege that I have in teaching at a small liberal arts college with class sizes that allow for this kind of pedagogical intervention. Here are a few suggestions for adapting this model to larger class sizes: by increasing group size or by limiting presentations to 20 minutes so that multiple groups can lead class during one meeting. I would love to know if you try this in your classes and about any adjustments or innovations you make to it.