Addressing Student Needs Through Inclusive Course Design

Diversity and inclusion have lately become the buzzwords for higher education institutions. As student numbers become larger and their cohorts more diverse, universities are keen on creating regulations, frameworks, programs, and missions proclaiming that diversity is their key concern. The challenge, however, remains as to how one translates these complex concepts into teaching strategies that meet concrete student needs in the actual classroom.

Dr. Oak Soe San, CEU Visiting Fellow from Myanmar, in collaboration with Margaryta Rymarenko, Postdoctoral Fellow at the CTL, tackled this challenge by designing a course 'Geopolitics in International Relations' for undergraduate students in the Department of International Relations at the University of Yangon, Myanmar. The new course aims not only at introducing key concepts and theories of the discipline, but more importantly seeks to incorporate students' diverse backgrounds, learning needs and motivations through inclusive class activities and assessment.

The University of Yangon is the top university in Myanmar and gets the best students from all over the country. 'Each student in the classroom comes from a different region and each of them has a different social and cultural background. Therefore, to accomplish the learning outcomes set by the curriculum, one needs to adopt an inclusive teaching style and apply multiple and flexible methods and strategies of teaching and assessment,' said Dr. Oak Soe San. 'For these reasons, I wanted to set course goals, learning outcomes and assessment standards that enable me to evaluate whether or not my students are moving onto the next level. Consultations with Dr. Margaryta Rymarenko were very useful to fulfill the above-mentioned goals,' she added.

Beyond diverse backgrounds, there were other issues to consider in the design process. According to Dr. San, students applying to International Relations and Political Science programs at the University of Yangon were mostly interested and motivated learners. However, towards their final year, some of them opted out for seeking professional training outside the University through internships, language courses, and various skills-development trainings. Having these alternative ways to satisfy their learning needs, students became less motivated and engaged in the curriculum courses. In addition, the new design had to consider the difference in knowledge and skills between 4th year and 2nd year students, who are often assigned to take the same courses.

'As we started to work with Dr. San on course design it became clear that the dilemmas she identified as an instructor had to do with facilitating diversity at multiple levels in a class of approximately thirty-forty students. Our goal was thus to design activities that will create a safe learning community for this course and incorporate various learning needs. At the same time, we wanted to increase students' motivation to stay engaged throughout the course and crafted assignments that give them the opportunity to develop the desired skills within and not outside of the University,' said CTL's Margaryta Rymarenko.

The resulting course syllabus is based on in-class and out-of-class group work, where students jointly conduct research on the topic of their choice, work on presentations, provide feedback within their groups and to other teams. This format encourages greater collaboration and engagement of the students in a large class such as this one. Group activities should multiply the opportunities for the inclusion of 'silent' students and help those with different skill levels to learn from their peers as they share responsibility by working on joint projects. Moreover, within groups students may organize their learning and collaboration according to their own needs and preferences. Beyond the course content, group work should contribute to social inclusion of students with various social, cultural and religious backgrounds. Groups are expected to work together on assignments also outside of the classroom, so that group members have more opportunities to get to know each other and can interact in an informal setting. Such collaborations are expected to contribute to a supportive learning environment and to facilitate better inter-personal communication between students.

The assignments for this course are linked to the group activities and aim to increase students' motivation by giving them the opportunity to practice some of the skills needed in the 'real world'. For instance, one of the assignments will be to write opinion pieces for the research bulletin available to the University community through the Departmental Library and with a possibility of having the best contributions shared on the departmental Facebook page. For the final assignment, students will assume the role of think tank experts and should produce a research-based policy study on Myanmar geopolitical strategy, where they are expected to apply the conceptual knowledge from the course to the real political context. This assignment will also be integrated in their research methods course, so students will be able to practice application of various research methods in a concrete project. Groups will present and defend the findings of their policy study at the final session of the course.

To assess the effectiveness of the new teaching approach, Dr. San plans to introduce mid-term and end-of-course student feedback. Based on her experience in the course and the information obtained from the students, she plans to design a follow up 'Critical Geopolitics' course to be taught in the future.

The CTL is eager to learn from and with colleagues outside CEU, although our primary mission is to collaborate with CEU faculty as they explore new approaches to enhance their teaching and mentoring. Through collaborations such as between Dr. Rymarenko and Dr. San, we aim to advance knowledge about diverse student needs and internationalization in higher education teaching and learning. We thus look forward to welcoming interested faculty outside CEU to work with us on their teaching innovations in this area.