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Currents: teaching and learning salon

Faculty Take a Seat in the Classroom to Learn From Colleagues in First Teaching and Learning Salon

One week before classes started this fall, faculty members attended a Teaching and Learning Salon to share their experience and expertise in teaching. The event was co-sponsored by the Teaching Enrichment Center and the Committee for Faculty Development and Research.

The new program offered four concurrent sessions and the opportunity for faculty to learn from their colleagues about best practices and pedagogical discoveries. Tom Kealy, associate professor and chair of Humanities, discussed Strategies to Enhance the Peer Review Process for Student Writing while Librarian Carrie Thomas, Adjunct Assistant Professor and Director of the Academic Resource Center Caren Baldwin-DiMeo and Sondra Vanderploeg, reference librarian, discussed Crafting a Research Assignment that Works.

Margie Lim-Morison, assistant professor of Nursing, explored the idea of Developing Concept Maps: An Approach Toward Meaningful Learning. Lynn Garrioch, associate professor of Social Sciences and Education, led a session on Best Practices for Effective Classroom Discussions.

Professor Eckrich was pleased with the outcome of the center's first Teaching and Learning Salon. “It was great that the first time the faculty was together this fall was around such an event. The exchange of ideas was terrific,” she says. “I think we will definitely explore continuing this event.”

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty Deb Taylor says the salon was a wonderful new program encouraging faculty to find out about and learn from one another.

“Well-attended concurrent sessions and poster sessions provided the opportunity to talk and think together about research and teaching,” she says. “The salon provided faculty members with a 'protected time' to share and celebrate their scholarly lives and accomplishments, and was the initial step in the fulfillment of an important goal of the Teaching Enrichment Center."

Peer Review for Student Writing

Professor Kealy, in his session, traced the development, pros and cons of peer review, with a focus on using the technique in writing courses though it can be applied to every discipline.

A technique that grew out of creative writing clubs and circles, peer review migrated to the classroom workshop format and blossomed in the 1980s.

“The goal, the ideal,” Professor Kealy said, “is to put students into conversations among themselves and minimize teacher intervention.” The benefits of doing so include providing an authentic audience, increases motivation for writing, enables students to hear different perspectives on their work and helps them read critically their own writing, and increases confidence.

“Students have to learn to read and analyze the author's choices,” said Professor Kealy. “Writing and reading are intimately connected. You can't be a good writer if you're not a good reader.” With good administration, peer review sessions can help writers become aware of the needs of the audience and enable students, especially new college students, to develop a metalanguage in which they learn how to talk about language.

Conversation exploded when Kealy, who acknowledged that the approach does have detractors, emphasized that peer review requires maturity and the ability to separate a student's creation from the student.

“Don't lead a peer review if you don't think it will be valuable,” Professor Kealy advised, “because it won't be.” Because readers often do not offer useful feedback and writers may not be open to criticism, he suggests faculty take time to establish expectations and teach students how to ask questions that reflect on the author's decisions and lead the reader into a deeper engagement with the text.

“A peer review may not be appropriate in week one of college, when egos are vulnerable and identities are shaken. The questions students ask should be directly related to the goals you articulated for the assignment, whether it's as simple as requiring pages be numbered or the number of sources cited.”

Keeping students accountable for their feedback led to a conversation of techniques employed by faculty in disciplines across the board. Professor of Natural Sciences Ben Steele suggested having students grade their critiques, while Deborah McKew, adjunct assistant of Humanities, said that feedback has to provide a direction. “The teacher's comments at the end of an essay give more value to the grade. If it's an A paper, why?” she asked.“What should the student keep doing that is A work, and what is not?”

Professor Kealy, in addition to grading student critiques and weighting peer reviews at five percent of a student's grade for the semester, meets with the reviewed and reviewers in small groups to discuss the feedback and what comes next.

Crafting a Research Assignment

Caren Baldwin-DiMeo and Margaret Wiley, assistant professors of Humanities, joined Librarians Carrie Thomas and Sondra Vanderploeg in leading the discussion with faculty members about ways to create assignments that teach students to conduct research and write effective papers.

Professor Baldwin-DiMeo opened the discussion by asking faculty members about the issues they encounter in the classroom and how they craft research assignments that aren't “overly prescriptive” and allow students to be resourceful and creative. Some faculty members avoid the term “research” altogether as it can create anxiety for students. Other faculty find it's important to break assignments into manageable stages, a process Professor Baldwin-DiMeo described as “scaffolding,” and offer clear guidelines and outcomes for each stage.

“Think about what your answer is to the question, 'What do I want to happen,' and then do a backwards process of planning the assignment,” she says.

Professor Baldwin-DiMeo also recommends that research assignments include explicit instructions on the kind of rhetorical stance that faculty require for students' research papers. A few of the models that she uses include the 1) Thesis Model, for which students present a central thesis and arguments in support of it; 2) a Conversational Model, in which a central idea is proposed and, most importantly, students engage in a conversation based on many different sources; and 3) Report Back, an approach that requires students to examine a range of research on a specific topic.

“The assignments should provide some examples of the kind of rhetoric and make it explicit in terms of scaffolding,” she says. “Break it into small pieces over five weeks. The idea is to have students build tools they need.”

Professor Baldwin-DiMeo requires that students provide an annotated bibliography, which gives her an idea of the kind of sources they're using. She also asks students to articulate their topic early on in the process so she can determine whether it's too broad or narrow or something they won't be able to find sufficient research on. Additionally, she often leads thesis workshops in class.

The faculty agreed that by providing feedback along the way, they help students to understand their expectations early on. This should begin with focused feedback on students' topic ideas, which identifies and clearly addresses the faculty's “higher order concerns.”

“Make it clear what's most important—students don't always know. Keep your feedback focused so students know how to take the paper to the next level,” Professor Baldwin-DiMeo explained. “Scaffolding also helps to prevent plagiarism. Often those who don't participate are ones who attempt it.”

Librarians play a critical role in student research projects, and they ask that faculty provide them with the background they need to most effectively assist students. “For us in library, it's helpful when students come in with a problem if we can see your syllabus, have some background and can direct them to right sources,” said Thomas. “Sometimes student don't have a topic yet, and if we know the overarching context of your assignment it makes it easier for us to help them.”

The library has added new databases for academic areas such as biology, sociology, philosophy and art history, and the librarians are available to visit classes to discuss these resources and create reference guides to accompany research assignments. Faculty can also connect students to library resources through their class sites on Moodle, according to Vanderploeg, which offers a “librarian role” that gives librarians access to assignments so they can create appropriate resource guides as needed. This fall the “librarian role” in Moodle has been automatically activated for all writing 105 courses.

Developing Concept Maps: An Approach Toward Meaningful Learning

Professor Lim-Morison's session on developing concept maps was hands-on and interactive, and emphasized making connections and building on foundational learning through the visual organization of knowledge and ideas. While some of the faculty participants were already comfortable with concept maps, for others it was an introduction.

Professor Lim-Morison enthusiastically outlined the nature of concept maps as an active, collaborative, student-driven learning tool that builds on existing knowledge and enhances critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“Professors know their information so well and design their lectures with that background information. They've had years to think about and play with the knowledge they're now teaching,” said Professor Lim-Morison. “Students also need to the opportunity to play and have fun with that information, and that's possible with concept maps. It does take time, and there's a learning curve, but it's a great way to describe complex concepts and show systematic relationships and connections between them.”

Deborah McKew, adjunct assistant of Humanities, listened with growing excitement to the information presented by the Nursing professor and said, “This is amazing, really powerful. It's a valuable tool for our classes and there are so many ways to use the concept map.”

Best Practices for Effective Classroom Discussions

Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Education Lynn Garrioch led a lively session on ways to ensure that class discussions are substantive and advance the learning objectives for the particular course. She began with a query on what faculty currently do to spark meaningful and productive dialogue.

When she assigns readings, Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences Laura Alexander asks students to come into class prepared with discussion questions. “I break them into small groups for discussion; sometimes students can't or won't speak to the large group,” she said.

Semra Kilic-Bahi assigns readings and asks her students to post discussion questions on Black Board (now Moodle). “I think this makes students think more about what they're reading.” Professor Garrioch sometimes asks her students to practice their discussion questions with peers before trying them out in class.

Some faculty find it helpful to assign specific roles to students during the discussion. “One is the recorder, one facilitates the discussion, another person summarizes the major points of the discussion every five or 10 minutes,” Professor Garrioch said. “Someone needs to summarize and go back and connect all the points.”

Along these lines, other faculty suggested students might be assigned to play “devil's advocate,” espousing unpopular or even politically incorrect perspectives or asked to defend two conflicting sides of an argument.

Citing “The Skillful Teacher” by Stephen D. Brookfield, the text she used as a framework for the conversation, Professor Garrioch asked faculty to respond to the assertion that faculty should avoid specific outcomes for classroom discussion, and instead allow the dialogue to wander as a way of encouraging student engagement. Most faculty, including Professor Garrioch, found that class discussions require some degree of direction to avoid dissolving into minutiae or flowing too far afield.

“What I struggle with is that their wandering is free form and tends to be immersed in their own life experience and not so much tied to facts. It can be misleading or irrelevant,” said Brian Clancy, assistant professor of Fine and Performing Arts. “I'll say, 'That's interesting. Can you reconstruct that in a historical context?'”

Malachy Flynn, assistant professor in Social Sciences and Education, suggested that faculty occasionally permit the discussion to wander so that students feel they “own” the class. “Give them time to wander and then rein them in,” he suggested.

Professor Garrioch finds it important to establish context and provide students with concrete outcomes for discussion, activities and for the entire course. “It's important to tell students the purpose of the class and every discussion, why they're doing it and how it relates to their majors, Capstones and the college's overall (liberal arts) outcomes,” she said.

In closing, the group prepared a short list of essential ingredients for leading a good class discussion:

  • Be prepared with questions and additional readings;

  • Establish the purpose and guidelines for the discussion. Try letting students shape the guidelines;

  • Try small group discussions first to allow students to summarize readings and make connections before moving to entire class discussion;

  • Ask students to bring additional articles, pieces for discussion to class.

  • Ensure the discussion leads to concrete takeaways and outcomes.

-Kate Dunlop Seamans and Kimberly Swick Slover with contributions from Amber Cronin '11