SIP 14.9 How to Incorporate Student Voice in Your Course Design

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Students walking across Auraria Campus in fall.

Over the past few years at Metropolitan State University of Denver, we’ve increased our conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom. We are a diverse community of learners and educators committed to educational equity.

One way we can work for educational equity is through incorporating justice principles in course design and development. Students are the group most impacted by our curriculum and design decisions, and yet they are often completely unrepresented as we make decisions about our course content, develop assignments and create syllabi.

Take a SIP of this: how to incorporate student voice in your course design

One way to better incorporate more voices in course development is by using the list of 10 design-justice principles developed by the Design Justice Network. These principles are intended for a wide audience and are particularly applicable in course creation. “Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face” (Design Justice Network, 2018). As educators, we can use these principles to center marginalized populations, seek student voices in our course development and use collaborative efforts to improve our classes and course organization.

Two Design Justice Network (2018) principles that are particularly relevant in the classroom are: 

  • Principle 2: Center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
  • Principle 6: We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.

Centering the voices of the students who are most directly impacted by course design gives them a chance to influence their course outcomes. Sometimes in our courses, the voice of the faculty or the course materials take center stage without leaving room for student contributions. Stepping back from this traditional classroom power structure to leave room for student voices at the heart of our curriculum allows room for collaborative exploration of course topics.

Students are creative about expressing their learning needs and realistic about their expectations in courses. Their feedback can enrich courses and curriculums as we apply Principle 2. Balancing the voices of faculty, students and course content in course development allows us to learn from one another in a classroom community.

Similarly, students bring a rich diversity of thought to our classrooms and online spaces through their lived experiences. We can provide activities that honor their experiences and help them make critical connections between their lives and our course content by implementing Principle 6. Although students may not (yet!) be experts in the content area of the course, they are experts in their experiences. MSU Denver has many diverse and nontraditional students who bring unique and creative contributions to the learning space, helping the learning community identify connections between course content and practical application. Re-centering students in the classroom and in course design allows for deeper, more equitable learning that supports our entire learning community.

If you have five minutes:

Read the whole list of design-justice principles and consider how you might apply them as you develop your course. What stands out to you? What is a simple way you can make changes in your course design?

  • Do an exit-ticket activity as students leave class or as they wrap up the week on Canvas. Allowing them to identify the challenges they face or areas where they would like to spend more time gives them a voice in their educational experience and guides the learning process.
  • Take time in class to normalize students’ lived experiences, particularly as they relate to challenges they might encounter in the learning environment. Remind students that their strengths and contributions matter in coursework and class discussions (Mulnix, 2020).
  • Shift a class discussion toward a synthesis of how that content applies to students’ experiences. These conversations provide a rich application of course materials and enhance learning in the class as students connect their lived experiences with the course content.

If you have 30 minutes:

  • Conduct a midterm course evaluation in your class. Not only does this process improve your SRIs, but doing an anonymous survey or feedback session and responding to student suggestions let them know you are listening and allows you to make changes to your course within the semester (Duquesne University, 2021).
  • Choose materials for your lesson this week that reflect the diversity of your students’ experiences. Consider whose voice is represented and seek readings, podcasts and videos from experts whose identities align with those of your students. Examining your course content through a unique lens may shed new light on the concepts you are exploring in class (Portland State, 2021).

If you have an hour or more: 

  • Invite a student to consult with you on your course design ahead of the new semester. What aspects of your class are working for them? Where are some areas where they feel you could make some improvements? Having one or more students collaborate on your course-design process helps you see the course content and organization through their eyes and allows you to make appropriate changes as you respond to student feedback.
  • Plan a final class project that allows students to share their lived experience in a way that honors their voices. You might consider providing options for how to complete the final project through writing, video or visual methods that speak most to each student.

**Bonus: Try to provide some form of compensation for participating students such as a small gift card or through a mentoring relationship. This avoids exploiting students who are giving their time to improve your course.

 Still thirsty?

References and resources 

Alber, R. (2015, June 30). Teach using the lived experiences of your students. Edutopia.

Design Justice Network. (November, 2020). Design Justice Network Principles.

Duquesne University (2021). Benefits, impact and process of early course evaluations.

Edutopia (2015, June 23). Gaining understanding on what your students know:

Quick, ungraded assessments help teachers know what their students understand from the day’s lesson.

Mulnix, A. B (2020, September 11). From inclusion to equity: Pedagogies that close achievement gaps. Faculty Focus.

Portland State University Library (2021, September 30). Culturally responsive and inclusive curriculum resources: Creating culturally responsive curriculum.

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