Participatory Design in the Classroom

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Every semester and every class is uniquely its own which means its students are, too. In my most recent course I’m teaching, Expository Writing—a Gordon Rule writing course that teaches students how to fine tune their description skills—many of my students have self-identified as not a writer. In fact, many of my students are biology majors, pre-med, or engineering students, and some of them, I’ve come to find, were not looking forward to flexing their pens. So, at the beginning of this semester, my challenge lay ahead of me.


Early on, because of this unique mix of students, I decided it was important to actively implement participatory design: an approach to design that attempts to involve users in the designing process to ensure best usability. It’s a broad term or approach that can be applied in any field, whether it be software design, architecture, or the university classroom.


Now, this doesn’t mean that I sit back and let my students run the show, but it does mean that I ask a lot of questions and place value in their answers. Some things I ask include: What’s been the most helpful text we’ve read so far in class? Which writing exercise was most useful to you as a student? Would you prefer to submit your first essay to only me, or to start with a paired workshop right off the bat? If you start the semester with participatory design in mind, it’s easy to remain flexible and adaptable, shaping your teaching to your unique students’ needs. And, new research has even found that designers, or in this case, instructors, create more innovative concepts and ideas when co-designing with a group, or in this case, our students.


The advantage to keeping participatory design in mind is that, by staying open-minded and malleable in your teaching decisions, you can best adapt to student needs, offering them, perhaps, a more valuable classroom experience. For example, when we hit mid-semester, I noticed that my students weren’t responding as well in classroom discussions, and that some were even dozing off while I was trying to engage them in a lively discussion. Some of this is normal, but I also asked myself what I could do to liven this classroom up? I took another brief survey and found that my students were wanting more in-class writing exercises, and this was something I could easily facilitate and incorporate into our time. After a few new lessons and in-class writing exercises, I saw the classroom energy instantly turn around and pick up speed again, gaining the momentum they were needing during that mid-semester slump.


The best thing, though, about participatory design is that it includes students in the process which:

  1. Removes a hard-lined authoritative teaching style
  2. Better assess and responds to student needs, and
  3. Empowers students, giving them agency and stake in the classroom


Ultimately, participatory design leads to these outcomes where students are more engaged, and where they are transforming from mere students-at-the-desk to the co-creators and colleagues they will soon become in their futures.

About the Author
Annalise Mabe is currently a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida where she teaches nonfiction and professional writing.