Students get more say in their learning

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The shift

When Candice Rideout took over the course Nutrition Education in the Community (FNH 473) three years ago, students had mixed reactions to the intensity of the course and the heavy workload, which involved both the classroom aspect of the course and a community-based experiential learning project. Some loved it and were successful, while others felt overwhelmed and unprepared to do what was being asked of them.

Now having redesigned the course, Rideout has removed superfluous elements and streamlined the content to focus on what she wants students to achieve in the course. Students can also now choose whether they want to work on a community-based project with a community partner, work on a more hypothetical, problem-based learning (PBL) project, or create a video documentary about an issue related to public health nutrition.


Nutrition Education in the Community is a fourth year course required for dietetics students at UBC and is one of the key courses taken by many students in the Food, Nutrition and Health program and the Nutritional Sciences major.

Working with community partners had been a requirement of the course before, and many students found it overwhelming to balance those projects with the other requirements of the course. In the first run of the new course, just over half the students decided to do the community-based projects. Some of the others who chose PBL projects cited an interest in going into medical school where PBL is often used, and said they wanted to get some experience with that modality. In the second year of the new course, four student groups decided to complete a community-based project, five groups chose a PBL project, and three groups produced short video documentaries.

Teaching strategies

Flipped classroom

Aside from giving students a choice between the community-based, PBL, or video documentary projects, Rideout has also focused the content of the course into modules, each of which has one or two key readings and a quiz that students complete before class. Five videos were also created to provide students with first exposure in key content areas such as using health behaviour theories and creating and using logic models. Students prepare for class by viewing a video, if applicable, and completing the relevant readings and quiz. As a result, they come to class ready to explore topics more deeply and can apply their learning more readily than they would otherwise be able to do.

“By introducing these quizzes based on the readings and videos, students actually completed the readings before class and more importantly deepened their interaction with the readings,” Rideout said. “They’re a bit more prepared throughout the course, so that frees up our class time to look at some of the more sophisticated applications and, importantly, for them to work in their small groups on their projects during class time.”

Small group work: Providing students with the choice of a community-based, PBL, or video documentary project

The focus of this course is public health nutrition, and the nature of small group projects students may complete is quite varied. For example, students working on community-based projects have worked with a high school to incorporate local, healthy foods into their cafeteria menu and with the Richmond Food Security Society to look at dental health among low income residents of Richmond and promote nutrition-related strategies to prevent dental decay. Other community partners have included Quest Food Exchange, a non-profit that sells donated food at low prices, the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, and Breakfast Clubs of Canada. Students working on PBL projects have examined issues related to food security in the downtown eastside or developed public health initiatives to support breastfeeding in British Columbia. Students who chose to create a video documentary have profiled the AMS Food Bank, examined the “right to food” approach to food security used by organizations such as the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables Project, or advocated for the inclusion of nutrition labels on fruits and vegetables.

One of the things Rideout hopes that students will get out of this course is an appreciation of how to successfully build programs that help improve nutrition and public health. This includes, Rideout said, “assessing the situation, planning an intervention, implementing the intervention, and evaluating it.”

“Those two end pieces,” she said, “are tremendously powerful. And even just in terms of public health in general, if we have people only focused on planning and implementing something, this is why we have so many unsuccessful initiatives that aren’t achieving the outcomes we’re aiming for.”

“I’m hoping students will gain awareness not only of key content and skills that are inherent to this course, but this slightly bigger picture of how to be effective in learning.”

Lessons learned

Rideout said that redesigning this course has taught her to consider what is working well and what isn’t and what changes can be implemented to support learning more effectively. For example, she said, “having the quizzes after the readings has transformed the level of conversation in class and the way the students are approaching the course and the work they’re doing. I’ve integrated that component into my other classes, these low stakes quizzes based on the readings, because it seems to both encourage students to do the readings and deepen their learning.”

Also because giving the students a choice in the type of project they complete over the term has been successful, Rideout said that aspect has “given me a respect for students’ willingness to have a voice in terms of their learning path.”

The impact

Rideout said that she’s seen a huge difference in the two groups of students who completed the redesigned course compared to the students who took it the previous year. “As a cohort, they’re tighter in terms of their experience with the course. There really weren’t any, unless there were one or two I’m not aware of, that by the end were totally disenfranchised, stressed, or overwhelmed. The hit or miss aspect is gone. It’s mostly hit.”

Also the reflection papers that students did at the end of the term seemed to reflect a deep connection with the themes of the course, Rideout said. “Based on students’ reflections, I have confidence that the students did achieve most, if not all, of the key learning within the past semester, whereas previously I didn’t really feel that. The first year I taught the course, I felt like there were students who “checked out” of the experience and were putting their priorities elsewhere, which is fine, but it meant they missed this opportunity.”


Rideout recommended three books that have helped inform her teaching and this project.

How Learning Works incorporates evidence and includes many strategies about how to promote student engagement in class and different activities that can be done. For example, Rideout has introduced what the authors call an “exam wrapper” in some of her courses. The idea is that after an exam, students reflect on what just happened and analyze it in some way. For example, Rideout asks them how their performance compared to their expectations, what they studied, how they used their study time, what types of questions they didn’t do well on, and how they could better prepare in the future. Rideout also sometimes asks her students to identify three things that they can do to improve their performance on a subsequent exam and what things she can do to support their learning. These types of strategies help her “get student feedback, reflect on that feedback, and deepen students’ learning.”

Rideout has also used the book Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink as a guide for overall course redesign and prioritizing learning outcomes. Fink also discusses transformative learning experiences and how instructors can create experiences that are truly meaningful for students. The third book she recommends is Teaching at Its Best.

“I find these are nice resources,” Rideout said, “because you can dip into them for 10 minutes and come out with some strategies that are effective that you can try in your own context to see how they work.”

The instructor

Candice Rideout is an instructor in the Food, Nutrition and Health and Human Nutrition departments at UBC.