Student Advice for Designing Your Best Course Yet

In addition to being full-time students, the students in the Learner Experience Advocacy Program (LEAP) observe and offer detailed feedback on two courses each term. Now in our fourth semester of the program, our veteran Student Advocates have seen a lot of courses!

As a pedagogical partnership program that stretches over an entire semester, LEAP facilitates open conversation between faculty and students. Faculty participants in LEAP have expressed that the program gave them a better understanding of the student experience. A literature review of studies on pedagogical partnerships holds true to this theme. Many other programs report that their instructor participants felt a greater sense of trust, collaboration and understanding between student and instructor partners, which often led to student-centered curriculum and design changes [1].

What follows are reflections on course design from two Student Advocates who have been with us since the beginning of the program: Emma Rubin, a senior wildlife biology major and Luke Martin, a junior math major. We hope that these insights will spark ideas for a great Spring semester. 

What have been the major pieces of advice you’ve given to instructors over the years?

Emma: Through all the instructors I have talked to, most of the advice I have had for them is to focus on the language that they use throughout their course. The tone, attitude, and originality that goes behind your statements are so powerful with how motivating a class is going to be. The language you use can make people feel like they have a real professor who cares about whether or not they learn in their course, or it can make them feel as if it is just someone who was forced to teach on the side of doing their research. Even if that is the case, making your students feel that way can wildly change the rate of motivation in students. In addition, the language you use for inclusivity such as late policies and disabilities, can determine how broad and how narrow the diversity of students that feel comfortable and motivated in your course.

Luke: Through seeing and participating in various online courses, the main concept I believe is most important is effort. What I mean is that one generally can’t copy-paste an in person class onto an online format without editing and putting in the effort to smooth out edges. Certain lecture styles don’t always work online as they do in person, so they might need to be modified. Same thing goes with assignments and all other parts of the course. Another thing is to be careful about how narrow a question is on a discussion board. For instance, asking about a specific event will end up mostly with a chorus of the same answers coupled with the monotonous “oh I agree” and “totally, I think the same thing!” responses. Don’t do a discussion board just to check a box, do it if it would actually be different then just having students work on a packet or quiz.

What’s something that really motivates you as a student?

Emma: As a student who sometimes gets overwhelmed throughout a semester, my absence or lack of participation being noticed and commented on privately really motivates me to get back on track. There have been cases where I am having issues with medications, am sick, or I’m struggling with my disability, and don’t always feel comfortable asking the professor to be flexible with me. But when I get a message that asks if I’m alright, or tries to work with me to get back on track, I usually make that return.

Luke: I have always had a hard time focusing on something for very long. I generally have many ideas/plans going on at once, and this hasn’t been the most constructive for my educational career. However, I find great motivation when a teacher is excited about the topic. A good teacher who is excited, provides interesting topics, and is approachable is hugely motivating for me. I don’t have issues with not showing up or participating, however my issues tend to lie in my sheer lack of memorization abilities, which makes my ability to “skate through” vocab based topics exceptionally difficult. For that reason, I appreciate when notes or a “cheat sheet” is allowed for exams. This forces me to spend A LOT of time working through notes which consequently makes me learn the topic in a more structure-based mindset and allows me to not get too stressed about vocabulary.

Have there been any standout experiences (conversations, course elements) from LEAP?

Emma: Inclusivity originality. The copy-and-paste statements from the university in the syllabus are noticeable. Using copy and paste covers any liability, but it does not do what it was meant to do, which is to increase inclusivity. The lack of originality in these statements shows that a professor just sees the students that fall in those categories as background situations. I had a really good experience with a professor who put so much effort into the disabilities section of her syllabus. Not only with a more original statement but also resources beyond the university ones to give students that extra help and opportunities. This stuck out with me. As a student who struggles with a learning disability, it was amazing to see so much effort, and really would have motivated me to get through the course.

Luke: Be careful of how much you expect from students who are in GER Courses. I think there is a misconception in some departments where there is a “culling” mentality when it comes to these pivotal courses. I find that often GERs can be very destructive to a person’s academic success, and it can be quite frustrating when a topic you don’t even care about for your major ends up holding you back. Sometimes it is ok to have lower expectations in GERs, because often you are dealing with students who are taking the class to go on to something they truly care about. And if a physics class ends up slowing down a Computer Science major who just wants to code…then there is some error in the design.

If you’ve reviewed some really good online classes, what makes them so successful?

Emma: Their focus is on time management and making things as flowable as possible. The really good online classes have found a balance between the number of assignments each week, how easy it is to navigate them in Canvas, and how consistent/predictable the weekly flow is. This can make a huge difference for student engagement and performance. Online classes were made for a larger variety of students with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and time constraints. If it is predictable and easy to navigate, there will be more peace of mind from those students that this class is something they can do.

Luke: Students recognize that it takes a lot of effort to make an online course. The courses that have had really solid work flows and great organization (I have even seen emojis that signify each type of assignment) are way more likely to be enjoyed and thus be more successful. One of the pivotal ideas is how easy it is to find assignments in Canvas. I have had classes where it becomes a bit of a pain to find assignments, and simple annoyances such as those can build up enough to the point where students just don’t want to deal with it. Lowering the barrier for education is the main reasoning for online classes, so it’s important to design the course with that idea in mind.

The logo for the LEAP program
If you are interested in getting one-on-one feedback from LEAP Student Advocates, check out the LEAP site to learn more about the program and apply. The program runs each Fall and Spring semester. Applications for Spring 2024 are due December 18th.


[1] Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S. L., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, K., Marquis, E., Shammas, R., & Swaim, K. (2017). A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education. International Journal for Students As Partners, 1(1), 15–37.

Clara Noomah

Instructional Designer

Elle Fournier

Elle Fournier

Instructional Designer

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