Inviting Students to the Table: Negotiating Power in Course Design


Aligned with adult education theories, enacting democratic practice can have a positive impact on student learning and engagement. Cervero and Wilson (2006) emphasize the role of power in the process of planning educational programs for adult learners; they theorize that the four key dimensions of the “planning table” at play are these: power relations, interests, ethical commitments, and negotiation. This is particularly important in higher education, where the teacher-student relationship is structured such that the teacher holds the power to assign grades and typically the teacher makes planning decisions prior to the course even starting. Putting theory into practice, each dimension can be considered as teachers plan for activities and assignments, course policies, course content, and student evaluation (Weimer, 2013). Educators have experimented with efforts to return power to students by collaborating with them in a range of higher education projects, such as the design of a cohort-based graduate degree program (Colin & Heaney, 2001), pre-service teacher education curriculum development (Enright et al., 2017) and redesign of a first-year undergraduate science course (Bengtson et al., 2017).

In this case study, I explore the role of power in curriculum and course design through considering approaches to involving students in the planning process. In my own teaching, I involved my students in the design of a new graduate course. Student perspectives on participating in this process were gained through an open-ended survey conducted after the conclusion of the semester. Questions were based on the theoretical framework of Cervero and Wilson (2006) in order to gain insight into the role of the student and teacher in the planning process. Qualitative analysis of student responses was conducted based on the constant comparative method (Lincoln and Guba, 1985) in order to reveal common themes. Additionally, I led a Practice Session at the 2020 Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy in which attendees shared their ideas and strategies. Synthesizing experiences from my own practice and input from workshop participants, I describe strategies for engaging students in the decision-making process and discuss real-world tensions in this work that serve as entry points for further reflection and exploration.


After completing this case study, participants will be able to…

  1. Describe how the dimensions of the planning table affect their own course or curriculum planning process.
  2. Discern real-world tensions in their course or curriculum planning process.
  3. Identify strategies for engaging students in making decisions about assignments, course policies, course content, and student evaluation.

UDL Alignment

Engaging students in course design in meaningful ways that allow them to share power with the instructor has significant potential to move students towards all three overarching UDL principles with an emphasis on providing multiple means of action and expression. Engaging students in making decisions about course assignments, assessment strategies, and policies allows instructors to optimize individual choice and autonomy to recruit interest. It allows students to choose the options for expression and communication that best suit their needs. Putting power into the hands of the students, with appropriate scaffolding and resources, provides a unique opportunity for supporting executive functions. Using a democratic planning approach opens up new opportunities for instructors to guide appropriate goal-setting and support planning and strategy development.

Instructional Practice

The ironclad syllabus that handcuffs students to the course defines the teacher-student relationship adversarially. It all but dares the students to challenge the teacher’s authority...students’ motivation, confidence, and enthusiasm for learning are all adversely affected when teachers exert control, and students end up feeling powerless.
- Maryellen Weimer, 2013, p. 93

Course planning is a central act in higher education teaching. Typically completed before the course even starts, instructors are expected to make key decisions related to the student experience in the course prior to knowing their students and what their needs and interests are. Planning opportunities for including student voice in deciding what they will learn, how they will demonstrate their understanding, and on what basis they will be evaluated returns some power to the students. This act, however, reveals central tensions related to the structure of higher education and the inherent power assigned to instructors, universities, and accrediting bodies. Cervero and Wilson (2006) posit that power relations, ethical commitments, and interests are always present in the planning process whether or not they are explicitly stated and negotiated. I argue that revealing and attending to these considerations is foundational to any effort to support individual needs of students, as called for by UDL. This case study is not prescriptive. In fact, it will generate more questions than answers. It is in grappling with these questions that we open ourselves up to new possibilities for rethinking practice.

Description of My Practice

My course, Systems Thinking in Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources Educational Contexts, was brand new with no known models in our applied disciplinary context. The course met a need for my department because many areas of research and praxis are grounded in systems thinking and complex systems ideas. It was taught at the graduate level (MS and PhD combined) and I had eight students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds and research interests. I set topics for the first part of the course then, inspired by a workshop I attended, I planned to structure the second 2/3 of my course around conducting a research project. I intended to set up research teams of students to investigate how systems thinking was being addressed in courses across campus. Students conducted an initial literature review assignment on a topic of their choice that was intended to drive the direction of this research project. Through discussions with the class following presentations on this assignment, it became clear that this was not the direction that the students felt they needed to go. They wanted to learn more about their topics and how to apply them in practice. In response to this, I switched gears and we held a series of discussions as a group to determine what they wanted to accomplish in the course both individually and collectively. In the end, we democratically negotiated the remaining course topics and expectations for the final project.

At the end of the course, students reported that they felt they had autonomy in the learning process, appreciated the variety of student perspectives that contributed to the course direction, and experienced being involved in decision making. Some students suggested that an “advanced organizer or heuristic to help understand the journey we were undertaking” would be helpful, highlighting a key tension that arose in this effort. Additionally, one student noted that “the instructor was a facilitator but also felt a part of the learning process;” this echoes my own reflections on how I felt during the course. Putting more control in the hands of the students allowed me to see the topic from a fresh perspective and kept me engaged in a new way. Enacting UDL through optimizing individual choice and providing multiple means of action and expression for my students enriched their learning and my experience as an instructor.

In the following sections, I describe the dimensions of the “planning table,” reflect on how each came to bear in my course, share ideas for strategies that can be used in practice, and reveal tensions and new perspectives that may play a role in sharing power with students. The intent is not to be exhaustive in describing the strategies, rather to generate new ideas for you to explore further. Finally, I end with an opportunity for you to reflect on your own practice and define next steps for yourself.

Power Relations

Power relations influence who is involved in the particular planning situation and shape an individual’s “capacity to act” (Cervero & Wilson, 2006, p. 85). Some individuals may have more power due to structural positions, however, decisions about how they exercise that power are made in context and as a result of negotiations.

My course: As the instructor, I inherently held the power in planning my course. I had the benefit of teaching a new stand-alone course and I didn’t have to consider external factors (such as meeting standards for accreditation) in planning. I held all of the decision-making power, so it was mine to give to my students. My decision to take a collaborative planning approach to the re-design of the course was a deliberate decision to share some of that power with my students.

Strategies for sharing powerTensions in giving students power

  • Co-design; students set their own course objectives

  • Needs assessments; ask students what they want to learn/how they want to learn

  • Co-facilitate; use students as role models to communicate course ideas

  • Provide students autonomy in completing assignments; let students choose format of expression for assignments

  • Have flexible deadlines

  • Instructor and student set up classroom rules and guidelines together

  • Explain rationale for course planning decisions to students and ask for feedback/suggestions

  • Scarcity mindset

  • Grading

  • Tradition

  • Race/class/gender dynamics

  • Trust/mistrust

  • Instructor as authoritative figure in the teaching process

  • Students who lack a background in power relations; e.g. 1st and 2nd semester college students have limited concept of personal power or worth

  • Competition

  • Competency-based programs


Individuals bring their own interests (and the interests of others) to the planning table; these interests are related to educational, social, and political outcomes.

My course: At the graduate level in particular, students bring previous experience and expertise to the course and coursework is intimately tied to the student’s own research and scholarly interests. It was important to me that these were considered as I planned the course, which was my reasoning for letting them choose topics for the literature review topics. Their interests came to bear even more in the re-design as this was the primary driver for changing direction. This experience served as an important point of reflection in terms of my interests in the research study versus the students interests in connecting the course to their current and future work.

Strategies for better representing the interests of studentsWays the interests of teachers and students might be in conflict

  • Invite students to the table during pre-course design stage

  • Develop shared norms

  • Develop an evaluation feedback loop; incorporate student feedback (e.g. midterm evaluation); once you’ve asked for their input, take action and implement

  • Mid-semester low stakes assessment

  • Include more applications of theory

  • Ask students what questions the course needs to answer in order to feel it has been of value to them

  • Build in areas of flexibility to give students choices (assignment, in-class examples)

  • Empathize with students’ day to day struggles as reflected in course

  • Teachers may focus more on theory, students on application

  • Teachers may have more insight than students in terms of what is actually needed. But teachers don’t always know student’s constraints.

  • Students may prioritize “easy A” material over a challenge (especially in intro classes); teachers know good learning is effortful, students may want learning that is effortless

  • Students may be focused on short term, faculty on long term

  • Coverage of the course content

  • Methods of teaching/learning and a lack of transparency for why

Ethical Commitments

Ethical commitments are enacted when decisions are made about desired outcomes and who should be at the planning table.

My course: I was disappointed to not be able to carry out the research project as planned because it would have helped move my own research agenda forward. Through allowing the course to change directions, however, I enacted my ethical commitment to bringing my students to the planning table.

Strategies to better align our ethical commitments to students with our planning practicesPotential new ways to think about ethical commitments in course planning

  • Make ethical commitments explicit. Explain why. Ask for input.

  • Create an explicit list of ethical commitments for direct comparison to plans

  • Provide transparency in why structures exist

  • Use only open source textbooks

  • Limit out of class activities

  • Use objective grading and share rubrics with students

  • Demo/model behaviors you expect

  • Implement flexibility of the course (in line with student’s cultural identity)

  • Develop an unwavering belief that everyone has the capability to learn

  • Planning to be inclusive of diverse cultures/religions

  • Decolonial praxis in all aspects of the course

  • Use anti-racist pedagogy

  • Solidarity with first generation and low-income students

  • Sensitivity to cost/fit in selection of learning resources

  • Promote student agency

  • Engage deep student learning for later professional use

  • Employ fair grading practices

  • Meet the needs of a diverse group of students; get to know them, their preparedness for your course, and their unique intellectual development


Negotiation is the central practical action in program planning and is the arena in which power and interests are asserted.

My course: As we moved forward together in re-designing the course, negotiating the interests of myself and the diverse group of students became very important. Additionally, while I wanted students to have power in the planning process, ultimately, I was required to give them a course grade. In navigating this collaborative decision-making process, I developed some structures that allowed for us to do this effectively.

First, we used the literature review presentations as a starting point. Students completed a homework assignment with guiding reflection questions. We then used a snowball technique in class (sharing in pairs, then groups of 4, then the whole class) to synthesize ideas while ensuring that all voices were included. I then led a whole class discussion using the ideas generated from the snowball exercise to determine next steps for the remainder of the course. The questions posed to the students were:

  1. Given everything you’ve learned from class readings, your work, and what was shared in class, what is your most pressing question about systems thinking at this point?
  2. What do you think would be the best course of action to address your question?
  3. What else would you like to know by the end of the semester?
  4. Is there something you would like to produce by the end of the semester?

With my small class, I was also able to give significant individual attention to their final projects. Following the group discussion, I developed a final project proposal process. Students generated initial ideas, met with me individually, developed a written proposal that included criteria on which they wanted to be evaluated, and revised the proposal based on my feedback (as needed).

Final Project Proposal

Due at 5 pm on November 1st, 2017

5 points

As we discussed in class, many of you were interested in developing a case study of a real-life social system. I am open to other ideas you may have had since then as well, so you are not limited to this format. I hope that you will use this opportunity to explore something you are interested in. The goal of this proposal assignment is for you to articulate your ideas for your project to me so that we both know where you are going with it and I can give you formative feedback to guide you moving forward.

Please include the following using the headers provided:

Driving question and context

Explain the question or questions that will direct your inquiry and the particular topic you will engage with or context in which this inquiry will be situated.

Project plan

Provide a detailed outline of what it is you want to accomplish. This should include a description of the format and content of the finished products you plan to produce. You should also describe the intended audience for your products. In other words, who (besides you) might use it?

Relevance to the course

Briefly describe how your project is relevant to this course. You should explain how it fits into the broad field of systems thinking and, more specifically, what concepts or tools you intend to employ in your project.

Criteria for success

Please describe your goals for the finished product and how you want to be graded for this assignment. This should include specific criteria for a successful product related to content, scope, writing, etc. The final submission is worth 30 points, so you should articulate how you want those points to be distributed. I know this is probably new for many of you, but try your best and I will let you know if you are way off.

I then graded their final projects using the student-generated criteria. This allowed me to assess their work and assign a grade while retaining student voice in defining the expectations. I have since used this technique in other courses and have been impressed with the creativity that students come up with in how they want to deepen their learning and demonstrate their understanding.

Strategies for negotiating conflicting interests in course planningPotential challenges/tensions in negotiating student and teacher interests and power relations

  • Solicit feedback from past students

  • Process student feedback with them; quantify, respond, use transparency

  • Be reflective and constantly experimental

  • Commit to negotiation and follow through on enacting it

  • Allow students to choose how their grade is calculated

  • Be mindful of language used with students

  • Scaffold/structure negation process for students based on their maturity, experience, etc.

  • Meeting prescribed objectives and goals

  • Aligning learning and assessment

  • Fear of losing control of the class; things could get chaotic and/or unruly and no one will learn

  • Inherent power difference between students and teacher and the ultimate outcome for students’ grades

  • Fear of bad course evaluations and grade appeals

  • Students are not always prepared to make decisions about their learning; asking them to do so may be new for them

What Are Your Next Steps?

Take a moment to jot down some new ideas and reflections on your own course planning process that were generated while reviewing this module. If it is helpful, consider specific actions you can take in the areas of assignments, course policies, course content, and student evaluation.

  • Thinking about your practice, how will you bring students to the planning table in your course?
  • What are some areas of tension that you want to engage with?
  • What are some strategies you want to learn more about?

Learn More

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

References & Resources

Bengtson, C., Ahlkvist, M., Ekeroth, W., Nilsen-Moe, A., Vedin, N. P., Rodiuchkina, K., . . . Lundberg, M. (2017). Working as partners: Course development by a student—teacher team. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(2).

Cervero, R. M., & Wilson, A. L. (2006). Working the planning table: negotiating democratically for adult, continuing, and workplace education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Colin, S. A. J., III, & Heaney, T. W. (2001). Negotiating the democratic classroom. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 2001(91), 29-37.

Enright, E., Coll, L., Chróinín, D. N., & Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). Student voice as risky praxis: democratising physical education teacher education. Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, 22(5), 459-472. doi:10.1080/17408989.2016.1225031

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage Publications.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author

Hannah H Scherer, Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Extension Education

Hannah H. Scherer

Hannah H. Scherer is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech.

I would like to acknowledge the contributions of participants in my Practice Session at the 2020 Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy on February 6, 2020. The majority of the ideas for strategies and tensions presented here were generated collaboratively by that group. Had I known I was going to write this case study at the time, I would have collected your names!