Introducing to Spartan Studios
Spartan Studios are experiential interdisciplinary courses where students respond to real life situations and wicked problems and design solutions that impact local stakeholders. Beginning as a partnership between faculty members and the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology at MSU, the Spartan Studios project is developing more experiential course offerings across campus. Through Studios experiences, this project supports student success by providing more accessible high-impact educational practices.
About the Playkit
This resource is a playkit, a combination of playbook and toolkit. You will find descriptions of:
Plays: our best practices for planning, implementation, assessment, and evaluating your experiential course.
🔧Tools: resources for developing elements of your own experiential interdisciplinary course
We encourage you to approach this work in a spirit of experimentation and play with these suggestions as you think through your own potential Studio course.
🔧 Earlier phases of the Studios project developed a model for experiential learning with the acronym GORP: Gravity, Ownership, Relationship, and Place (Heinrich, Lauren, & Logan, under review). We have seen how these elements can lead to transformational learning experiences for students in Studios courses. (Heinrich et al., in press). GORP is a key tool we have to share with you; we encourage you to consider how these elements might fit in your own experiential course. They aren’t all-or-nothing, and course instructors can decide in what ways to incorporate them into your course design. While we have observed that these elements reinforce each other, you can consider them à la carte suggestions for experiences that students tell us matter to their learning and growth beyond MSU.
Gravity: Give students a challenge or opportunity that matters to them and they’ll be motivated. The primary motivator for student work in a traditional course is usually the assessment or grade. By organizing your experiential course around a significant challenge, a wicked problem, or an opportunity for students to meaningfully participate in or affect their world, you can offer students an alternative motivator: making a difference to communities affected by these challenges. Keep gravity central as you design your course, students’ interactions with community partners, etc. A holistic approach to grading, where students are assessed on their overall participation, processes, and reflections about their experience, helps to prevent the course grade from reasserting itself as the gravity.
Ownership: Give students autonomy throughout the experiential course, from the design of their projects through their implementation. Let them manage their teams and be accountable to each other for their work. Having this ownership movitates high levels of engagement with the course material and assignments and increased participation. In a course with high ownership, students see themselves as creators and contributors to real conversations. Include opportunities for emergent outcomes and for students to steer the instruction.
Relationship: Experiential courses give instructors the opportunity to reset the teacher-student relationship. Be a coach rather than a lecturer. Don’t jump in to solve your students’ problems; instead, you can encourage them to try new approaches, even if they may not work out. This will help them see failure as part of their learning process. Learn from the students outside your discipline, and encourage students to learn from each other. By removing yourself as the gatekeeper of acceptable solutions, you empower students to learn from their choices. These reconfigured relationships require trust within student teams, within the team of co-instructors, and between students and faculty. Instructors should be empowered to facilitate student-driven learning while also providing the benefits of their expertise, knowledge, and judgement.
Place (and space): Connect their work to a place. Visit it if you can! Places resonate, even if they can’t visit in-person. Encourage students to form their own connections with the place: What does it mean to them or to the community impacted by the course’s challenge? Also, think about your teaching space. Early Studios courses were held in the Hub’s flex space, a room with moveable furniture and whiteboard walls that students could reconfigure based on their teams’ needs. This flexibility and connection is also possible in virtual classrooms and workspaces. A flexible and collaborative mindset open to new and radical student-driven possibilities is part of the conceptual space we want to build in these courses.
Studios courses are interdisciplinary. Students and faculty benefit from interacting and collaborating with other disciplines. Working across disciplines is an opportunity for both discourse around your discipline’s approaches and methods as well as tensions between areas of expertise. It is helpful for students to be exposed to those conversations: it helps them not be siloed within their major and it reflects how they might serve on diverse teams in their career.
Select your interdisciplinary instructor team. Think about the faculty members or other disciplines that would be a good fit for the course you have in mind. Courses with 2-4 faculty work best. What skills or learning goals could other disciplines bring to the table? Think broadly: real-life challenges and wicked problems are multifaceted and can benefit from solutions incorporating communication, marketing, packaging, natural, social, or applied sciences, humanities, etc.
Set expectations amongst yourselves around workflow and shared responsibilities both around and within your teaching time. Be explicit and transparent with each other about your estimated availability for the course.
Meet regularly with your teaching partners leading up to and during the course. We call this a scrum (like in rugby!) Discuss upcoming needs and reflect on the past week’s events. A short regular meeting helps you surface issues and make concrete plans better than emails back and forth.
🔧MSU’s Center for Interdisciplinarity (C4I) is a resource for interdisciplinary research and teaching.
Course Theme: Form your class around a theme or problem that is difficult to solve and benefits from many disciplinary perspectives. The topic or project you already have for your course might already relate to a wicked problem; you may just need to make that explicit by iteratively asking yourself why that topic matters. For example:
Striking a balance: The course topic/project needs to be significant enough for students to create a meaningful connection to the project (develop passion and drive outside of obtaining a grade, or the “Gravity”), while still being focused enough for students to make progress on the project within the time and resource confines of a semester course. Striking this balance is important for students to feel connected to the project while also feeling empowered to make a tangible difference. Students should also be part of developing their solutions to the problem. You need balance between the course’s gravity and the depth of focus on these problems, and students can have the agency to shape what their solutions to these problems look like. Those solutions will depend on the mix of specific students and majors who show up for the class.
Future potential: Consider a course theme with the potential for repeat offerings. The local solutions produced by the class one semester can be built on in the following semesters, or you can emphasize different facets of the problem each semester. Think about how to maintain community partnerships for those longer-term projects.
Attracting students to the course
Setting expectations for students
Setting course expectations for students should start at the course listing/department advising, and continue with the syllabus and the first few class periods. The experiential framework of the course and the method of assessment may be jarring for students - they have been trained in traditional education styles for nearly their entire lives.
Create Learning Objectives
Consider whether these will be uniform or vary for students in different majors, and what goals the disciplines may share together. Learning objectives can be explicitly flexible (i.e. gain a skill specific to your own career goals). Other learning objectives can relate to working on interdisciplinary teams or with community partners.
Consider an online Studios experience
Think about how these in-person, collaborative experiences can be translated into an online format during the COVID-19 pandemic.
🔧Resources from ASPIRE, MSU’s self-paced asynchronous professional development for online teaching
Community or industry partnerships make Studios courses’ themes and topics real and compelling for students. Based on the theme of your course, you likely have relevant partners in mind already. The project/problem/course should also have high actionable potential for community partnerships (local or global). These community relationships should mutually benefit students and project sponsors.
Partnership options can include:
Examples: Studios courses have partnered or are partnering with:
🔧MSU’s Center for Community-Engaged Learning is the campus unit best equipped to advise you about finding a local community partner in nonprofit or community groups.
Consider evidence-based team creation
Students need opportunities to try new things and to not be afraid of taking risks or making mistakes. To encourage this, try being their coach instead of their instructor. This involves supporting their work, giving advice, but not jumping in to solve their problems. Be strategic about when to intervene if things do go wrong. They need to trust that they won’t be penalized for failure; encourage students to learn and try new things. Focus on their planning, progress, teamwork, and reflection. See GORP: ‘Relationship’ and ‘Ownership’
Judge when to leave students to solve their own team conflicts instead of stepping in
For example, if a student team is having difficulty focusing and making progress, a faculty coach sits down with the entire team and encourages an honest conversation about why the team thinks this is; encourage them to think of solutions to this problem. Facilitate discussion on how students can solve their problem within a team, rather than disciplining students yourself or offering/insisting on a solution
Flatten your learning environment. Learn from and with the students, physically sit with them at their level - not standing above them or “sage on the stage,” admit knowledge gaps and allow students to fill them, emulate a professional working relationship with the students How-to: Show students that they have control over the project/course.
There are many options for assessment in your experiential course. In addition to assessing performance or content retention, you have the option to assess students’ holistic contribution, as well as to focus on engagement with the experiential process.
Assessment of Student Work
Assessment As Learning
In addition to assessment towards their grade, experiential courses offer opportunities for instructors and students to learn from the course processes.
Evaluation of Process and Reflection
Give students the opportunity to reflect on their progress a few times during the project. These metacognitive moments, where students think about their own thinking, are opportunities for deep learning and can be transformative. This also helps you understand team dynamics and how they assigned work within their teams. Reflections can be written or more open-format, like art projects. You can come up with reflection prompts specific to your course as well as more general prompts about their learning experiences.
You can use reflections to:
🔧Table of written vs. open-format reflections
Sample prompt questions:
There are many potential areas of research connected to teaching a Studio course. These include:
🔧MSU’s Office of Research and Innovation has resources for faculty members to get started on a research project, involving undergraduate students in research projects, and more.