Student-Taught Courses: Learning and Discovering Yourself Through Teaching


Student-Taught Courses at Rice is a unique program that allows undergraduate students to design and teach their own course. In preparation for their teaching experience, students take a 6-week pedagogy course — COLL 300 “Pedagogy for Student Instructors” — in which they design their course syllabus, learn the principles of of effective teaching, and design and practice their learning activities. The course has been taught since 2015 by the CTE with college magisters and, beginning in fall 2020, will be co-taught by CTE staff and the CTE Graduate Teaching Fellow.

In this post, we have invited Anna Guseva, who taught an STC “Introduction to Synthetic Biology” and another one about Soviet science-fiction, to reflect on her experience as a student instructor. Currently, Anna Guseva is a Master’s student doing synthetic biology research in Silberg lab at Rice. She received her B.A. in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from Rice University. She is interested in teaching, science communication, and learning about research on education that can help us develop better ways of teaching science and other subjects.

Student-Taught Courses at Rice

Rice has many resources for supporting undergraduate teaching, including a teacher certification program, courses on the theory and practice of education, and teaching assistantships. But the most unique option are student-taught courses (STC), where students can design and teach a class about a subject of their choice. During more than 15 years since the program started, students have shared their expertise about many different topics, ranging from “Sociology of Love and Media” to “Hands-on Electronics” and “Personal Finance.” While giving the students freedom in choosing a topic and designing their own syllabus, the program also provides access to support from college magisters, faculty advisors, and the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), and equips the students with fundamental teaching skills by requiring them to take COLL 300 “Pedagogy for Student Instructors,” a 6-week course taught by staff from the CTE and a college magister.

The pedagogy course provides an overview of effective teaching approaches, as well as opportunities for hands-on teaching practice. When I was developing my first class, it motivated me to think about many important questions: how do I estimate the workload and make sure it is appropriate for a 1-credit hour course? What are the best ways to assess student learning? How should the instructor motivate students to do the work assigned outside of class? The skills I learned helped me develop and teach three courses in humanities and STEM: two iterations of a class on introduction to synthetic biology, and a course about Soviet Union science fiction. Being a course instructor left no questions about what makes teaching so hard, but it also showed me that being intentional about developing your teaching approach has a large impact on the course quality and student experiences.

Developing a Project-Based Course on Synthetic Biology

One of the key takeaways from Coll 300 was the importance of designing course activities that target different cognitive processes, beyond just remembering and understanding. This idea aligned well with my plan to develop an engaging project-based class about synthetic biology, which was inspired by Rice iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine). With my co-instructor Emma McCormick, we wanted to create a format where students can explore and research the real-world importance of synthetic biology. While our course covered the fundamental synthetic biology concepts, the class time was mostly dedicated to problem-solving, discussions of primary literature, and project design.

To provide space for both individual learning and a group research project, we separated the class into two parts. The first part was focused on building background knowledge. At home, students completed readings and quizzes while class time was devoted to addressing the most common mistakes and working on problem-solving activities. We also spent some time on discussing peer-reviewed articles and how they can be used as inspiration for new ideas. Replacing lectures with at-home reading and quizzes allowed us to have more time for practice and hands-on applications.


The second part of the course was devoted to developing a proposal for a research project, where students worked in teams to explore the applications of synthetic biology by designing a solution to a problem in medicine, environment, energy, or fundamental science. Student teams worked with peer-reviewed literature and other resources to learn about the background of the problem, create a biological system design, and assess the feasibility of their proposal.

In addition to showing the real-world importance of synthetic biology, our course aimed to connect students with experiential learning opportunities. We encouraged students taking the course to join the iGEM team at Rice to pursue a hands-on implementation of their project idea in lab during the summer. The course also provided opportunities to connect with graduate students doing research in synthetic biology and to learn about ways to join a lab on campus. We invited graduate students to visit some of our classes to share feedback on the student project ideas and give advice on the project design.

Many students who completed the course decided to join the iGEM team: last year, they worked on a project to create engineered bacteria that can improve crop resistance to environmental stress, and created a website to showcase their results. It was great to see that our class served as a starting point for students to do this amazing work.

Creative engagement with information and the experience of building connections among different concepts are essential aspects of learning. We tried to convey it throughout our course, but it is also something we experienced as instructors. During my weekly grading and preparation for class, I got to explore new topics, work on designing and solving problems, reflect on the student (and my own) understanding of the material, delve into primary literature, and have important discussions with my co-instructor. These activities helped me develop a new framework for understanding synthetic biology and see how different fundamental principles of this field fit together. While my course focused on a more traditionally “academic” subject, student instructors who decide to pursue more unusual topics undoubtedly experience similar learning benefits as they build expertise in their course area.

Course Instructors Learn the Most

Student-taught courses allow students to discover topics that are not offered in traditional courses at Rice. But beyond the excitement of exploring conspiracy theories or Houston microbreweries, college courses provide a unique immersion into teaching for the course instructors. Taking the course from its original idea to the moment where they need to grade final assignments, student instructors gain important experiences in all stages of course design and implementation. While this is a challenging journey, the course “Pedagogy for Student Instructors” and other STC resources prepare students to be thoughtful about their teaching methods and provide guiding principles for developing engaging course activities. This preparation allowed me to come into the classroom with the awareness of strategies that promote active learning and help create a positive learning environment.

Student-taught courses helped me develop a greater confidence in teaching and independently creating activities and project assignments. They also allowed me to gain a much deeper understanding of my course topics. That is why for me, engaging with college courses was one of my most valuable experiences at Rice, and it strongly supported my interest in teaching and communication. I realized that sharing my knowledge and helping others learn gives me a sense of fulfillment that I rarely experience in other contexts. I hope that interest in STC will continue to grow and help more students learn through teaching the topics they are passionate about.

Author: Anna Guseva