Students Teaching Students begins this semester

Sean Yoder
February 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students Teaching Students, an undergraduate-developed program at Penn State, will pilot five courses this semester taught and developed by students and overseen by a faculty member.

The most headline-grabbing of the courses this spring has been CAS 197(c) Criticism and Kanye, described as “A literary, cultural, and philosophical look into hip-hop using Kanye West as the primary case study.”

Other courses offered are CED 497 Humane Economics, ANTH 197 Bias in the Healthcare System, and CAS 197(d) Legal Reasoning and the LSAT. With the exception of the LSAT prep course, each course is taught by two students.

The STS courses won’t substitute for courses required to graduate, or satisfy General Education requirements, and will be in addition to the courses students need to complete their degrees. They will, however, contribute to the minimum number of credits required to graduate.

Although the program’s founder — Penn State junior Michael Miller — had to develop the program from scratch, it’s clear he likes to build things.

The Hershey native designed his own major through the Bachelor of Philosophy program, creating the course path of “values-driven design.” This year he founded Loancrunch, an app to help students keep track of and develop a plan to pay off their loans. And in high school, he started a charity event through The Thirst Project to raise money to build water wells in the country of Eswatini, Africa.

Miller said he and STS co-director Josie Krieger will use the spring semester to find out what students and faculty like and didn’t like about the pilot courses, and use the feedback to help create a beneficial program for everyone before expanding further.

“What I think ultimately will make it successful are students who care about it, and students who say ‘This is valuable. This is worth it,’” he said.

A top concern for STS organizers is to build a sustainable program that will far outlast their time as students, Miller said.

“Our focus from the beginning was: What is this program going to look like in 50-plus years?” he said.

Turnover is inherent in all student-run activities, and Miller said that while that can be a challenge, it’s also a blessing since in the long run more students can be involved.

The idea of student-initiated courses in higher education isn’t new. It was a friend at the University of Maryland who first turned Miller onto a similar program there still in its experimental phase. At Maryland, they call them STICS, short for Student Initiated Courses. Like what Miller has in store for STS at Penn State, STICS consists of classes taught usually by two students and are typically worth 1-2 credits.

All students who are developing and teaching courses through STS will go through training with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, where they will learn about compliance related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, course design, facilitation, management, assessment and pedagogy.

Laura Cruz, an associate research professor with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, said that STS puts students at the helm of the class, setting it apart from many of the existing opportunities at Penn State for students to be involved in teaching.

“The real difference in the training for this program is that the students are designing the courses themselves and they have full ownership and responsibility for every aspect of that course going well,” Cruz said. “From the obvious and the concrete things, like the syllabus, but also to other things like creating a sense of community in the classroom.

“The other thing the training does is give them empowerment," added Cruz. "They need to feel the ownership of this class. They need to understand and really get that this is their course. That means they’ve got the ability, they’ve got the strengths, they’ve got the power to make this course what they want and what they think it needs to be. Some of what we do in the training is building up that self-efficacy, that confidence in themselves to make this course their own.”

Much of the discretion for developing and approving courses is up to the academic colleges. Alan Rieck, associate vice president and associate dean for Undergraduate Education, said the courses are able to use already-existing processes for approval. Part of that process is that courses must be overseen by faculty, who will ensure University standards and compliance.

Daniel Zahn, senior in English, philosophy and communication arts and sciences, is teaching the LSAT preparation course. He said it was a way for him to provide a service to his peers.

“I managed to get a grant to mitigate the costs of self-studying for the LSAT, but I know other students aren’t as fortunate,” Zahn said. “LSAT courses and materials can cost thousands of dollars, and I wanted to do something to help prevent people from being ‘priced-out’ of their best possible scores. So, after I did well on the LSAT, I thought teaching a course on it would help level the playing field and create more opportunities for Penn State students to get into great law schools and/or get more scholarship money for law school.”

Miller said that applications are open until Feb. 20 for students interested in designing and teaching their own courses in the Fall 2020 semester.

“We encourage students from all backgrounds to submit ideas based on their experience, passions and where they see gaps in the curriculum,” he said. “We also encourage students to consider looking for a co-instructor interested in teaching alongside them — a unique aspect of the STS program. Faculty members can also refer students to the program.”

Miller also put out a call for students to join the STS executive team.

To learn more about Students Teaching Students, visit stspsu.org.

For more information about the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, visit schreyerinstitute.psu.edu. The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence is a part of Penn State Undergraduate Education.

Last Updated February 12, 2020