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Changing Classroom Expectations: Realizing I Was Doing Too Much Work for Students

Welcome back everyone. Best wishes for a healthy and productive Spring 2017 semester. With enthusiasm, we introduce this semester’s first Threads entry by Dr. Christina Moylan. Christina, alongside her cross-disciplinary peers, participated in a year-long course design faculty learning community.  Her entry kicks off a blog series in which approaches to “significant learning” are considered from multiple perspectives (Fink, 2013).  Each faculty entry signifies only a slice of their reflective and change processes, but one that they bring forward to contribute to the broader teaching dialogue within our IC community. Enjoy!  Judith Ross-Bernstein

By Dr. Christina Moylan

More and more disciplines are calling for well-designed, meaningful undergraduate experiences to improve student preparation for graduate studies or to enter the workforce. Traditionally, many disciplines have emphasized the classroom primarily for the delivery of content-specific knowledge. External opportunities, outside of the classroom, served as the “experiential” realm for students, where content was applied. However, this segmented approach to the undergraduate experience is shortchanging a valuable opportunity for more meaningful learning where students spend the most time – in the classroom.

In public health, for example, The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health’s (ASPPH) Framing the Future initiative presents a new vision for education in public health for the 21st century. It emphasizes that students should have opportunities to integrate, apply, and synthesize knowledge through cumulative and experiential activities. ASPPH recommends that this occur both within and across courses, in addition to external learning opportunities. To realize this goal, public health faculty will have to re-think how we design and deliver course materials to better integrate content with meaningful application into every day classroom learning for students. It also represents a shift for students, who will have to approach class prepared and with a proper mindset to be engaged and meaningful learners.

As a faculty member in the Health Promotion and Physical Education (HPPE) Department, the push for improved course design around integration, application, and synthesis within my discipline encouraged me to reconsider how I deliver course content. I realized that when preparing my courses for each semester, I focused significant energy on developing course syllabi, the topics that are covered, assignments, and the timeline for the class. I often shortchanged the more microscopic attention to each class within the broader course structure – the specific objectives for each class, how the content will be delivered, and the activities, likely ungraded, that will be used to foster student engagement. Too often, this preparation was a last minute scramble just prior to class without fully considering whether I had selected the best strategy for sharing material and if I had optimized the opportunity for student engagement in learning (Fink, 2013). It often resulted in me doing most of the work in the classroom, with students present as passive consumers of information.

The Center for Faculty Excellence’s Early Career Excellence Institute (ECEI) provided me with the opportunity to examine more closely what I was doing within each of my courses – to consider thoughtfully the teaching strategies I was using every single time I stepped into the classroom.

It made me realize that, quite frankly, I was doing too much of the work…and students, not enough. I was not demanding engagement or tapping in to their capacity for more significant learning, because I had not taken the time to create a meaningful learning environment in my classroom.

I started my journey in ECEI with a basic objective of wanting to shift my classroom expectations away from an instructor-led format toward a more student-driven learning environment. I erroneously held the belief that this shift toward student engagement would simply mean making the classroom “more fun.” However, the admonishments of Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison (2011) gave me pause, as they noted that classroom environments that are structured only around an objective of fun run the risk of achieving low levels of learning. They illustrated this point with the example that “…playing a version of Jeopardy to review for a test may be a fun activity, and better than just doing a worksheet, but it’s unlikely to develop understanding.” (p. 9). I now understand that fun activities can be used to engage and challenge students, but only under an umbrella of structured learning. Activities (even fun ones!) must dictate active student engagement in a way that requires them to build explanations, reason with evidence, make connections, and understand different perspectives (Ritchhart, et al., 2011). It should also help students with realizing that when it comes to the study of a discipline like public health, the world is not black and white; it is contextual and relative. There are often several answers or perspectives for addressing a given question or scenario, although all solutions may not be equal (Barkley, 2010).

In an upcoming series of two blog posts, I will share how I have integrated two simple student engagement techniques into an introductory and upperclassman public health course to create more student engagement and meaningful learning.

In the meantime, share comments describing the changing expectations within your disciplines for student education. What changes have you considered making to your course structure or teaching strategies to better meet these changing expectations?

References

Barkley, E. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L.D. (2003). A Self Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (2nd Ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M. & Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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