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Pedagogy and Course Design Need to Change. Here’s How.

Transforming the way faculty teach, students learn and learning is assessed.

September 3, 2020
 
 

The student body is changing fast. So, too, are students’ needs and goals. If we are to serve our students well, our teaching and assessment strategies need to change, too.

Gradually and unevenly, the pedagogies of the past are giving way to new approaches that are learning and learner-centered and that involve active learning, the active processing of information, technology and real-world applications modeled on professional practice.

Driving the shift to new pedagogies are several key developments. These include:

  • A shift in student expectations. A do-it-yourself attitude toward learning has arisen. Fewer students are willing to sit passively through lectures. If a class session isn’t substantive and engaging, many students believe that they can acquire the information in other ways: by downloading a professor’s PowerPoint slides or learning from the internet or a textbook. Students have also grown less compliant and deferential. Growing numbers are willing to challenge professors’ claims, dispute interpretations and call for the inclusion of alternate perspectives.
  • The emergence of a new student majority. A majority of undergraduates now fit the definition of a nontraditional student. They commute to campus, work and have caregiving responsibilities. Unlike the traditional-aged college students of the past, they’re older, come from lower-income backgrounds and are far more diverse ethnically and racially. Many, who are the first in their family to attend college, seek an education that is flexible, relevant and career-focused.
  • A shift from relatively homogeneous to highly diverse classrooms. Any assumption that students share common frames of reference or values or a common level of preparation are out of date. If we are to bring all students to success, we must recognize that a one-size-fits-all pedagogy won’t work. Continuously monitoring student learning and diagnosing gaps and confusions is essential.
  • Changes in the world of work. The skills that employers want from college graduates have changed. Along with technical expertise, employers value soft skills. These include:
    • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills (an ability to analyze issues, make decisions and overcome challenges).
    • Oral and written communication skills (the ability to articulate ideas clearly and persuasively).
    • Teamwork skills (including the ability to negotiate and manage conflict and interact effectively and empathetically with people of diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, sexual orientations and religions).
    • Digital fluency (the ability to use technology tools efficiently and effectively).
    • Leadership skills (including the ability to manage and motivate others and to organize and delegate work).

Let’s look at 14 pedagogical strategies that can make a big difference in student motivation, persistence, skills acquisition and their ability to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, synthesize and create. All seek to shift teaching away from direct instruction and rote memorization, bridge theory and practice, and require students to process information and make sense of what they learn, reflecting an approach to learning known as constructivism. All seek to help students better absorb, retain and apply knowledge and skills.

1. Case-based learning

In a case-based approach, students examine and analyze an actual series or sequence of events and their outcome or a realistic scenario or simulation in order to understand its history, context, etiology and consequences. This approach gives students the opportunity to explore the decision-making process and consider options or alternatives or to mirror the diagnostic process in which information is gathered, assessed and acted upon.

2. Collaborative and cooperative learning

Collaborative learning is a pedagogy that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, understand a concept or undertake a project. Group learning offers a way to help students develop social skills, problem-solving skills, collective decision-making skills and presentation skills. Its effectiveness requires individual and group accountability. The difference between collaborative and cooperative learning is that the latter typically involves preassigned roles or responsibilities.

By making learning a social process, this approach learning holds out the prospect of producing intellectual synergies, building collaboration skills, tapping the energy that comes when groups of students engage in a common project and transforming teams into communities of inquiry, practice and support. Examples include collective brainstorming and problem solving, engaging in debate, and social annotation, in which students mark up a text.

3. Critical and transformational pedagogy

The starting point for critical pedagogy is a recognition that classrooms are sites of power, privilege and hierarchy; that teaching is an inherently political act; and that the politics of the classroom are obfuscated and need to be revealed and critically assessed.

Within traditional classrooms, proponents argue, certain ideas, perspectives and forms of behavior, discourse and argumentation are favored. The conceptual design of a course remains hidden and unexamined, while the selection and interpretation of topics and readings reflects unspoken ideological presumptions. Meanwhile, the approach to teaching in the traditional classroom, whether involving lecture or discussion, takes the significance of particular texts or topics for granted and fails to model the range of alternate interpretive or analytical approaches. All of these factors lead some, if not many, students to feel marginalized, discouraging deep learning.

The goals of critical pedagogy are to alter the student-faculty relationship, awaken a student’s critical consciousness, encourage them to examine the role of the standard curriculum in reinforcing structures of power, offer multiple perspectives and interrogate and critically assess conventional assumptions.

4. Experiential learning

This is an umbrella term for forms of learning through experience and reflection. Internships, undergraduate research, clinical experiences, study abroad and service learning are but a few examples of ways that students can gain practical experience, purposefully apply knowledge and skills in authentic contexts, and reflect on what they have learned.

Effective experiential learning activities must be carefully structured and supervised; involve meaningful relationships; have clearly defined expectations, goals, responsibilities and activities; and offer opportunities for feedback and reflection. A student must document clear evidence of learning and produce an outcome, typically logs of observations, a reflective essay or a completed product or project.

5. Field- and place-based learning

Learning need not take place in a classroom or laboratory. A hallmark of archaeology, geography and environmental science courses, field-based learning can take place in almost any discipline and give students the opportunity to apply their research skills. Underlying this approach is a belief that neighboring communities and environments outside the classroom contain assets that can significantly enhance student learning. Examples of field- or community-based learning include collecting interviews and oral histories, investigating historical sites, and undertaking participant observation. To be educationally meaningful, the students need to formulate a research question; undertake background research; collect, process and interpret data; and draw and present conclusions.

6. Gamification

This approach integrates gamelike elements -- such as interactivity, competition, playfulness and immediate feedback -- into teaching and learning. The use of rewards, recognition, points and levels helps motivate students and encourages perseverance.

7. Global learning

To enhance students’ ability to participate in a globally interconnected world, this approach examines international relations, complex global challenges, cultural differences and transnational processes (like migration), and gives students the tools to communicate and engage meaningfully and effectively across national and cultural boundaries. Ways to foster global learning include foreign language instruction supplemented with cultural activities, paired classrooms and digital pen pals.

8. Immersive learning

This approach places students in a realistic virtual or simulated environment in which they can analyze a setting or context, re-enact various scenarios, role-play, or practice and apply a variety of skills and techniques. The most exciting examples place students in virtual reconstructions of historical sites and structures.

9. Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning is a form of active learning that places students at the center of the learning process. It begins with a question or problem that students must investigate. The students, then, conduct research; identify, analyze and interpret the evidence they uncover; draw conclusions; and present their findings. The inquiries can be structured or more open, and the outcomes can be known in advance or only discovered in a process of investigation.

An inquiry approach builds on the adage "Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand." It requires students to take responsibility for their own learning.

9. Research-based learning

Research-based learning gives students hands-on experience in applying the epistemologies, methodologies and modes of dissemination of a particular discipline.

Opportunities to engage in authentic independent research are scalable. The Freshman Research Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin gives more than 1,000 incoming students a year opportunities to undertake independent research in one of 30 research streams in astronomy, computer science, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, mathematics and physics. Each stream is directed by a faculty PI and supported by a postdoc, graduate students and undergraduate peer mentors. During the first semester of a three-semester sequence of course work and laboratory research, students are introduced to the scientific process, taught research techniques, helped to formulate a research question and shown how to maintain a lab notebook. Students, supported and mentored by faculty and others, subsequently conduct research and write up and present their findings.

10. Service learning

Service learning allows students to connect skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom to a specific community need or challenge. It is not simply community service. Rather, it combines specific learning goals with an outcome deemed significant by a particular community client. Service learning requires researching the problem or need, devising and implementing an action plan resulting in a meaningful outcome, and engaging in a rigorous process of reflection and assessment.

11. Public scholarship

Public scholarship supports the academy’s civic mission by speaking to public issues and collaborating with cultural institutions outside higher education, such as archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, newspapers, performance venues, schools and humanities councils. There is no reason why students can’t engage in public scholarship, for example, by partnering with community institutions to develop educational resources or websites; serving as docents, teachers’ aides and leaders of after-school programs; and creating documentary films.

12. Technology-enhanced learning

Technology is a tool, not a pedagogy. Nevertheless, new instructional tools have the power to transform education by facilitating new forms of collaboration and interactive learning, Examples abound, and include blogging, concept and network mapping, creating podcasts, data visualization, digital storytelling, etymology, exhibition creation, social annotation, text mining, and timeline construction. Students can create and analyze virtual scenarios.

13. Learning by making and doing

Learning by doing helps students link theory to practice and translate academic knowledge and skills into tangible products. The best-known form of learning by doing is project-based learning. It involves more than simply completing a project; rather, it is the primary way that students master skills and knowledge. Ideally, project-based learning requires students to go through a multistage process of design, planning, execution, a public presentation, critique and revision, and formal assessment. The project outcome need not be a physical product. It can consist of a detailed policy proposal, a teaching resource, a briefing paper or another authentic outcome.

Maker spaces, design studios, visualization and prototyping labs, digital media labs, and innovation hubs and accelerators are physical or virtual spaces where students can receive support (including legal and business expertise and assistance with design, programming and commercialization) as they take a concept to execution. A growing number have expanded their focus beyond technology projects to encompass the arts, humanities and social sciences.

14. New forms of assessment

Just because you covered a topic in class does not mean that the students learned it. Typically, we assess student learning through an exam or a term paper, but other modes of assessment can give us a more valid and reliable measure of whether students can demonstrate their mastery of particular knowledge and skills. These include authentic assessment that mimics professional practice (such as a policy brief, a funding proposal or an environmental impact statement); peer assessment, in which students develop, apply a rubric and provide constructive feedback; and project-based assessment, in which a project is subject to rigorous evaluation.

This vision of pedagogy contains several takeaways for faculty members:

  1. We need to embrace the role of learning architect, who engineers experiences, activities and assessments that seek to bring all students to the outcomes that we seek.
  2. We should treat undergraduates much as they treat graduate students, as mentors, who are not only responsible for students’ cognitive growth, but their professional development.
  3. We should rethink the way we conceptualize the teacher-student relationship, and view our students not simply as objects of instruction, but as partners, collaborators, providers of fresh perspectives and creators of knowledge.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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