As I was preparing my first First Year Seminar, Denise Bartell offered me a bit of advice: she said, “the only difference between a high school senior and a college freshman is a summer.” I think her point was that I should set realistic expectations, both for the students and myself, but her advice also made me realize that I really have no idea what my students expect. Are they taking my class just to fill some University requirement? Are they actually interested in the topic? And what on Earth do they hope do with all of this knowledge?
Being a social scientist I set out to discover the answers with a brief survey. I asked my students why they are in college, why they are taking my class (if it’s required, do they agree with the requirement?), and what they hope to do when they get out of college. It will probably not come as any surprise that the overwhelming majority are in college because they want a job, most take my classes because they have to (but they generally agree with the requirement), and when they leave college the majority want to start a career, buy a house, and (maybe) start a family.
Next, I decided I should ask myself more or less the same questions: What do I want them to get out of their college experience? What do I want them to learn in my classes? What are my hopes for them when they leave college? As you might imagine, it was immediately clear that my expectations were quite different from theirs. Of course I want them to have a job (or why not start a business?) and have a high quality of life, but I also want them to be good citizens (perhaps even good global citizens!). Among other things, I understand this to mean that they will pay attention to current events and play an active role in shaping these events.
Since I have no real interest in just meeting their expectations, how then can I design a course that will meet my admittedly loftier goals? How can I design a course that will transform my students from passive learners into engaged citizens? In other words, how can I multiply the effect of my contact hours? Unfortunately, my courses had been designed to follow the standard traditional model. You know the drill: two tests, a research paper, and a sprinkling of quizzes. While this strategy may train students to think critically, it’s unrealistic to think that these activities will produce engaged citizens.
At this point it was clear that I needed some help, so I applied for the year-long Teaching Scholar Program run through the CATL office. Ably led by David Voelker and Angie Bauer, this program offered me the tools and confidence I needed to redesign my courses to better meet my objectives. As it turns out, all I really needed was what I call a multiplier effect. That is, I simply needed to devise a way to transform my students into educators. It occurred to me in the course of this program that I learn much more from teaching than I ever did as a student, so why not just transform my students into teachers? Not only will students become more proficient in the course material (meeting their expectations) but they will also develop the confidence and skills they need to emerge as engaged citizens (meeting my expectations).
So how do I do it? Well, the metamorphosis begins in the classroom where students create and deliver lectures to the class, much as I had under the traditional course model. At least once each semester a student starts class by delivering a 15-20 minute critical analysis of the assigned reading, complete with key questions to drive the class discussion. Although this system is awkward at first, within a few weeks students usually take over the discussions entirely and it becomes my job to merely keep the conversation on track.
While I have not done away with research papers, I have hopefully devised ways to make these assignments more relevant and engaging. In a traditional course you might have twenty students write a research paper, one person then reads all twenty papers and returns these papers to the same students who wrote them in the first place, at which point most go in the trash. In the end you are left with 20×1=20. See, no multiplier effect.
To address this problem I added an additional component to my research assignments. In one course I asked my students to use their research papers as the framework for creating a documentary film and in another class I asked them to create an infographic. In each case the students are then required to provide a public presentation of their work, and it’s this step that is essential. The documentary and infographic help students learn how to communicate complex information to a general audience, but the public presentation trains them to be engaged citizens. It’s this step that gives me my multiplier effect. So in this case, twenty students create an assignment they then share with 30 or more audience members, all of whom can potentially share the knowledge with their friends and relatives.
In the end, all of these ideas were the result of Denise and her little nugget of wisdom. So thank you Denise. And while I’m at it, I should also say thank you to David and Angie and the 2013 Teaching Scholars class, without whom none of this would have been possible.
Public and Environmental Affairs