Let them Teach the Class – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 10 of 11

10. Let them Teach the Class

Many teachers still insist on being the “sage on the stage” rather than cede control of the learning process to their students.  This stubborn approach can deprive students of a valuable learning experience.  I think most teachers would agree that one who intends to teach others well must know his or her topic deeply.  Students must also know how to break it down into understandable parts and how to communicate effectively.  Of course, many students won’t be effective teachers on their first attempt, but going through the teaching process is a great learning experience.  They will learn from their mistakes and reflect on their communication skills and strategies.  After a few tries, students will embrace this role and take pride in their contributions to the class.  They will start to see themselves as sources of knowledge instead of passive, empty vessels waiting to be filled by the teacher.

In playing the role of teacher, students typically realize how difficult it is to captivate and impact an audience.  Consequently, they often leave the experience with more respect for their teachers’ daily charge than when they began.

Many teachers make the mistake of simply telling students to create a presentation on a topic based on a rubric and teach the class without considering  all of the variables involved that can make the difference between success and utter chaos.  So, here are some things to consider when giving students the reigns.

Give them good topics to study.

Start by giving your students the opportunity to become experts in a part of your class content.  You could be studying planetary systems, biomes, historical eras, cell parts, human anatomy, or any other topic which has multiple parts that can be divided among a group of students.  The topics shouldn’t be so complex that students are overwhelmed (e.g. integral calculus, interpreting Shakespeare), but not so simple that it seems like busy work (e.g. plants/animals on different continents, climate of the planets).  If students are studying content that is heavy on facts and figures, give them some more complex questions to ponder.  For example, if students are studying planets, ask them to create a mathematical formula to convert their Earth weight to their weight on the planet that they are studying.  Or, ask them why the composition of a planet affects its magnetic field.

Give them choices.

Students are empowered by having choices in their project topic, who they work with, and how they present their topic.  Students who are extroverted may choose to do a live presentation whereas introverts may want to record a video presentation.  By allowing students to choose their topic and their mode of communication, they will be more engaged and enthusiastic about it.  So what do you do if no one picks a certain topic?  Here’s an idea.  Cover that topic yourself.  Read more about this below.

Give them examples.

Believe it or not, a lot of students don’t get very many chances to do presentations in front of the class.  With crammed curricula, high-stakes testing, and everything else that takes up class time, many teachers don’t allocate time for student presentations anymore.  Many students won’t know how to do a presentation because they don’t have any experience.  For this reason, you should provide them with a model presentation.  Present a topic (it doesn’t have to relate to what they are studying) and have students critique you using the same rubric that you will use to critique their presentations.  Not only does this remind them to refer back to the rubric criteria, but it also allows you to embed teachable moments into your presentation by making errors on purpose.  I was so tired of watching students create gaudy slides with too much text (usually plagiarized from websites) and then read their slides to the class that I had to show them how poorly this looks.  Engaging students in a conversation about the positives and negatives of your presentation is a very productive exercise.  Students will learn the do’s and don’ts for their own presentations by reflecting on you.  Hopefully, you will see fewer students making these rookie mistakes as a result.

Give them feedback.

Next, monitor your students as they complete their research and presentations.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Technology is not a babysitting service.  Just because students are working on a computer does not mean they are producing good results.  Don’t tell them what to do but rather ask them questions. When the student evaluates their own thinking and decisions based on your questions to refine their final product, it is much more empowering for them.  Self-reflection is a key component in self-improvement.

Here are some questions and question stems you can use:

  • What are the main ideas of . . . ?
  • Is that the most effective way to show . . . ?
  • What do you think?
  • How could you improve on this?
  • What do you expect your audience to . . . ?
  • If you were in the audience, . . . ?
  • Why did you choose to . . . ?
  • How would you improve this slide . . . ?
  • What other ways could you . . . ?
  • What are the alternatives to . . . ?

Consider creating a rough draft deadline for your students to receive feedback from their peers.  If students are using Google Slides and Google Classroom, students can share their presentation links on Google Classroom and receive feedback from their peers via the class comment feature.  Alternatively, they can do a gallery walk and write their feedback on small sheets of paper.  Students will be inspired by each others’ work and they will hold each other accountable for staying on schedule.  Of course, you will be monitoring student progress and giving feedback throughout the whole process so that they can fix their mistakes BEFORE they are formally evaluated.

Engage your audience.

During the student presentations, give everyone a rubric with space for comments so once again students can learn from peer evaluations and feedback.  Encourage students to ask questions at the end of the presentation.  You can also use a backchannel to get feedback such as TodaysMeet or Padlet.  For example, a teacher can type the student’s name and topic in TodaysMeet and then the students can type their questions and comments throughout the presentation.  This feedback can be shared with the presenter later.  If students are using Google Slides to present, they can use the Q&A feature to provide feedback.  All of these methods are device agnostic which means they will work on computers, tablets, and smartphones so you won’t have to hunt down a class set of devices to do this.

Give students a chance to reflect.

Finally, consider giving students who do poorly a chance to revise their presentation and resubmit or re-present their topic.  Yes, this is more work for you, but it also promotes a growth mindset among students.  They know that you value growth rather than a simple grade from a one-and-done assignment in which feedback will not change the outcome.  If you simply can’t do this, at least give students time to self-reflect on their experience so that they can improve next time.

The reflection may include questions such as

  • What part of this project are you most proud of?
  • What part of this project do you see room to grow?
  • What would you change, if anything, about how you researched?
  • What advice would you give yourself before your next presentation?

Identify one project to experiment with letting students teach the class.  The naysayers will declare that this whole endeavor is a waste of time since they will have to reteach the material anyway due to poor or ineffectual student presentations.  To them I ask, “If the students never get a chance to try and fail, how will they get enough experience to succeed?”  “How will we develop effective communicators and collaborators if we are the only ones who are talking?”

Let me know what you think about these ideas or share a story from your own experiences by commenting below.

Let Them Help – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 1 of 11
Let them Choose their Seats – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 2 of 11
Let them Pick their Problems – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 3 of 11
Let them Pick their Project Topic – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 4 of 11
Let them Pick their Product – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 5 of 11
Let them Use their Technology – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 6 of 11
Let them Have a Break – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 7 of 11
Let them Interior Design – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 8 of 11
Let them Create their Assessment – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 9 of 11


2 thoughts on “Let them Teach the Class – Ways to Promote Student Autonomy – 10 of 11

  • April 14, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    Wouldn’t you worry about friends choosing to work together? They won’t get anything done.

    • April 14, 2017 at 6:25 pm

      That’s true, but that is also a teachable moment. Most students see school’s primary purpose as a place to socialize with their peers. As things start to unravel with a group of friends regarding their progress on their project, ask them if working together was the best choice or at least ask them what rules they can adopt to improve group dynamics. This way, students will learn to self-regulate.

      I’ve seen many situations where teacher-created groups also implode because one person is doing all the work or the group members don’t get along for some reason. Of course, there are always scenarios in which you may want to strategically group students for an assignment, but sometimes working with their friends (effectively) will make them more invested in the final product. This especially happens if they get to pick a topic that they are interested in.

      Thanks for your comment Lizzie.


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