Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Students as Partners in Learning: Charting the Quarter's Course


Howdy GTCers,

First, I’d like to offer a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone who came out to our welcome meeting on Thursday - based on the energy and enthusiasm of our participants, it seems safe to say that we are in store for a particularly productive quarter!

Unable to make it? Not to worry! Below you’ll find a summary of our discussion, the questions that arose from those discussions, and the full schedule of workshop topics for the quarter.


After a brief round of introductions, we dove right into our first question: What comes to mind when we think of Students as Partners in Learning?

The idea of the “flipped classroom” was one of the first concepts offered up. This is a teaching strategy that depends more heavily on active participation from students to ensure a successful classroom experience. In traditional lectures, for example, the course of the lecture is not usually impacted by poor preparation on the part of the students. But in a flipped classroom, students who fail to complete their homework or do the readings ahead of time can cause serious negative consequences for a teacher’s lesson plan. Given this, then, the question then becomes: how can we get students to put in that quality of work outside the classroom?

Self-motivation on the part of the students is essential - this helps ensure that they are invested in teaching themselves as well as learning from others. Making sure students have clearly defined their own goals and have measured them realistically against the structure of the course itself is a key part of this. This point led to the question of how we as teachers can encourage this kind of reflexive goal setting, especially in large-enrollment courses.

Getting students to help each other (“other-motivation”, if you will) is also a necessary component of this student-driven process. But straightforwardly addressing this with mandatory partner or group work can be a double-edged sword. While it’s true that some students perform better when made accountable to people other than themselves, we all know that there are other students who are equally willing to take advantage of the situation. Successfully inspiring ‘other-motivation’ thus requires a more thoughtfully managed approach. Can evaluations be created that account for these partner/group dynamics? Structuring grades to be partially dependent on this group work was another idea brokered to address the issue - is this the way to inspire students to become partners in learning?

Following this idea of peer assessment came the important point that while peer evals can provide insights on group dynamics, many of our students are uncomfortable or unsure of group critiques. So before we ask students to evaluate one another, we need to make sure they understand both the process of peer evals and the reason behind it. Basically, we need to teach them how to use that tool before we can expect them to use it. Reminding them that these kinds of evaluations are used often in the “real world” is key - this is a moment when instruction in the classroom can incorporate the kinds of transferable skills that will benefit them long after the quarter concludes.

Another component of this topic is student-to-teacher feedback during the learning process. As this week’s workshop participants discussed, soliciting students’ opinions throughout the quarter gives them a more tangible sense of ownership over both their learning and the class itself. It also helps avoid problems later in the game. This kind of feedback can include asking students to help construct the syllabus on the first day, or encouraging them to request topics for next week’s discussion at the end of every meeting. Exercises that involve asking students to assign number grades to old writing samples is also often highly instructive - many of us shared during the meeting that our students can be much harsher graders than we would ever think to be! Even if such class-wide projects aren’t possible, encouraging peer review of writing assignments gives more experience and guidance to the students while saving you hours and hours of critiquing.

The most important component of encouraging student assessment and feedback comes from us, the teachers. We need to model the way we want our students to engage in the classroom; if we are enthusiastic, they will be too. So when we ask our students to critique an essay or a performance, we should take charge of the first sample and show them how it’s done. This might include teaching them about the POP technique, known in some circles as the “complement sandwich”. As an acronym for “Positive - Opportunity - Positive”, POP places the emphasis on positive commentary in order to lessen the anxiety of critique for both evaluators and recipients. Teachers know well that for every student submission, there has to be something good about it, just as there has to be something to improve. Utilizing POP, or the wide range of similar techniques available to us, helps our students understand this as well. Getting them in the habit of actively critiquing others’ work in this way also encourages a measurable difference in their self-reflexive skills. Being able to identify problems in other peoples’ work helps them identify and avoid those same problems in their own work.

The idea of modeling an example is also applicable to the student-led discussion approach. Using the first lecture, discussion section, or lab to show students the proper way to organize and lead a classroom serves multiple functions. First, it serves as an acknowledgement on our part that we understand how stressful it can be to ask students to become the authority on a topic. Second, it highlights what criteria we use to evaluate their preparation and presentation. Demonstrating how to read and process the information the first week provides students with a point of entry to the material. Pairing good and bad readings or examples is an easy way to help provide some structure to class time while giving students the chance to exercise their critical thinking skills. For this practice, class size is of course an important component. Another question along these lines: how might these practices be adopted for a large-enrollment course?


Given the proven benefits of engaging students as partners in learning, why doesn’t every professor structure their classes in this way? Aside from the strong pull of habit, finding effective ways to get students more involved involves more initial preparation for professors than the lecture-based model. But while workloads for courses like these tend to be more frontloaded, the benefits that emerge as the quarter progresses far outweigh the burdens. With students more active and self-reflexive, professors often note a substantial reduction in the kind of end-of-quarter chaos found in normal lectures.


Toward the end of the meeting, the group realized that much of the discussion up to this point had revolved around techniques that involve talking - talking in class, talking during critiques, etc. But what about students who don’t feel comfortable speaking assertively in class? And given the rise of online course design, how do we engage students when there is no classroom in which to meet?

As some of us suggested, creative uses for technology can help address some of these issues. Clickers encourage attendance, if nothing else, and when used creatively they can encourage active involvement and self-reflection for large classes, just like group discussion can for smaller ones. Online discussion boards allow students to create content, not just test their understanding of it, and there are multiple platforms (blog posts, podcasts, youtube videos) usable to this end.

But like group work in the classroom, technological resources are not without problems. It’s not uncommon for students today to create Google docs for study guides and share them with others in the class. While collaboration is an important part of active learning, these documents cause problems by allowing incorrect information to be accepted as fact. So where do we draw the line regarding technology use? In cases where false information passed around in this way ends up on exams, should we let students fail and take it as a learning opportunity? Do we report them to SJA? What is it about online collaboration that potentially makes it more problematic than group studying in person? These questions prompted a very lively discussion, but all of us agreed that at the very least, we can and should encourage students to fact-check these documents as a study activity. Another alternative is to create a class-based mini-Wikipedia for students to create and edit, allowing professors the ability to monitor the content in a more controlled way. Doing so gives students resources that are more reliable instead of more easy, and helps teach them the difference between the two.


It was with this last thought in mind that our time came to an end. But as you can see, this quarter’s topic is rich with potential workshops and themes to explore in more depth. As a further resource, a brief bibliography of academic literature on this subject was distributed at the meeting (you can find a copy of it HERE).

The schedule for this quarter can be found HERE. Each week lists the workshop theme, as well as the person in charge of facilitating it. If you plan to earn a workshop certificate for this quarter, be sure to decide which topic interests you and contact the corresponding point person.
Next week’s workshop picks up where we left off - with a discussion on technology, facilitated by Matt Dumlao. If this is a topic that interests you, see his flyer (below) for all the details!

As always, Donnelly and I are ready and willing to answer any questions you might have about the GTC. Be sure to get in touch if you need to - otherwise, we hope to see you soon!


(Posted by Sarah Messbauer)


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