Working Together: The Benefits of Providing Choice in Topic Selection

In recent years, there has been a shift in the educational landscape towards a more student-centered approach to learning. This means that educators are increasingly looking for ways to involve students in the design and delivery of their own education. One way to do this is through student-staff partnerships (Felten et al., 2014), where students and the teaching team work together to co-create a learning environment that is tailored to the needs of the students.

Student-staff partnerships can be beneficial for both parties involved. For students, these partnerships can provide opportunities to take an active role in their own learning, to develop stronger relationships with their educators, and to gain a better understanding of the curriculum. For educators, student-staff partnerships can help to create a more learner-centered classroom environment, to get feedback on their teaching from students, and to better understand how students are experiencing the curriculum.

Student-staff partnership in topic selection

As part of the Connected Learning at Scale project at The University of Sydney Business School, a teaching and learning approach was designed to enable students to be active participants in their learning and make informed decisions in the process of selecting topics to be studied. The development was carried out in a new data science course in the Master of Commerce program and involved 500 students working together with the teacher to select topics of study. This student-staff partnership was dubbed “Working Together”. The partnership featured:

  1. Self-diagnosis of learning needs: the initial phase where students are supported in identifying their own learning needs and seeking out the most suitable resources
  2. Student reflection: a process guided by a set of questions, which encourages and inspires students to post their experiences on a digital platform.
  3. Collaboration: where students and teachers collaborate to decide on topic streams and collectively select the topics to be studied through voting.
  4. Evaluation: students evaluate the process and provide feedback to enhance the structure for upcoming semesters.

Working Together | Planning stage

The idea was initiated by the Unit Coordinator, who had identified that in weeks 10 and 11 there were several topics that students could usefully learn and that would cover the required learning outcomes. He was particularly interested in giving students a voice in selecting which topics to include. Subsequently, the team, consisting of the unit coordinator (the subject matter expert), the educational developer, and the learning designer, started to explore how this could be done within the unit. The team spent time identifying possible approaches to collaborating with students in a way that would allow them to make informed decisions that aligned with their needs and create an enabling environment that would facilitate active participation. Lastly, the team developed project timelines and assigned roles to members for implementation.

Working Together | Implementation stage

In the Canvas LMS, a module scaffolded into five pages—overview, reflect, decide, select, and review—facilitates students’ gradual progression towards the final decision-making point. Below is a visual presentation of the phases, illustrating how students worked with the teaching team to select topics to be studied during Weeks 10 and 11.

What did students say?

Over 80% of students who participated in the survey (n=29) agreed or strongly agreed that the scaffolded decision-making process helped them reflect on what they were interested in during the course. All of the phases of partnership, including Reflect, Explore, and Decide, were seen as useful, with approximately 70% of respondents considering each phase to be moderately or extremely helpful. In addition, students revealed that the topics covered in weeks 10 and 11 became more interesting to them and that they were able to connect them to their learning needs and goals.

Final thoughts…

The project’s results demonstrate that ‘Working Together’ produced an atmosphere conducive to learning and getting to the heart of what it means to collaborate on decision-making. Students had opportunities to critically examine their own learning, process, and progress, as well as collaborate with their peers and teachers to determine what they should study.

The following design pattern which we developed based on the outcomes of this project may help you to think about opportunities to invite students to co-create aspects of their learning in your course.


We would like to acknowledge the additional team members involved in this project including Dr Stephen Tierney (Unit Coordinator) and Dr Alison Casey (Educational Developer).

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