Rejuvenating the Classroom

Kentucky community colleges find benefits from teaching their instructors about learning.
May 21, 2007

The Community College Content Literacy Program has some serious fans.

It was effective enough, apparently, to convince one faculty member nearing retirement to stay on and keep teaching. Others who had taught for decades raved about its rejuvenating effect in their classrooms.

"They're more excited about teaching than even when they started," said Tim Glotzbach, academic dean at Hazard Community and Technical College, in Hazard, Ky., about the faculty members who have participated so far.

The program responsible for that enthusiasm builds on efforts at the K-12 level and within the Kentucky Community and Technical College System to move from a "teaching centered" paradigm to a "learning centered" one -- and while they might appear to be two sides of the same coin, those who work with the program say that one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.

Linda Hargan, the founder and CEO of the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, which developed the Content Literacy program, boiled it down to a saying: "I don't know why they didn't learn it, because I taught it."

"Well, this turns that around," Hargan said. "The focus isn't on 'I taught it,' the focus is on 'they learn it.'"

And that means a whole array of classroom methods introduced to participating faculty members in an effort to encourage more engagement with the material and make learning more interactive for students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college or who come from so-called "non-traditional" backgrounds.

Hazard, for one, exemplifies some of the issues common to community colleges, like low retention. But its location in southeast Kentucky -- a rural area with a coal and timber-mining base -- means that some of those problems are magnified. Glotzbach said that about 80 percent of the students there test into some sort of remedial course. And the student body itself is a mix of people starting second careers, many of whom are leaving the mining industry; more traditional students looking to transfer in two years or study nursing; and a good number who haven't been in school for years.

"One of the things that we find, sometimes, is we have a lot of students who haven't been in school for a while or haven't performed well in the past ... and we really need to work on ways to keep them engaged and enthused about the information," Glotzbach said.

His hope, he said, is that the Content Literacy program would lead to better student engagement, and from there, improved reasoning skills among students who might eventually help solve some of the more pressing problems endemic to the Appalachian region where Hazard is located.

"For our region, we need students with critical thinking skills," he said. "We need them to look at situations and ... start to see connections between very dissimilar ideas that might in turn result in a solution."

For now, that solution lies in the classrooms participating in the program.

Content Literacy is fairly unique in the world of community colleges. It brings a pedagogical approach that has been used in the primary and secondary levels -- one that focuses on alternative methods of presenting materials so that students can actively grasp it -- into higher education, by starting with the instructors and hoping for results with the students themselves. While most faculty development programs are short-term and not necessarily affiliated with the colleges themselves, the effort is being carried out in the Kentucky system through an outside partnership. It was spearheaded and designed by a nonprofit professional development organization and receives funding from a foundation that promotes access for underserved students in higher education.

Caroline Altman Smith, a program officer with the Lumina Foundation for Education, which gives out approximately $50 million a year in grants to support its educational mission, said the program is getting positive notices so far from faculty and students.

"We believed that in much the same way that students can learn from one another, we believe faculty can learn from one another," said Jan Muto, assistant for teaching and learning to the chancellor of the Kentucky system.

And from there, the program began in January 2006 with its first group of faculty members at two campuses, Hazard and Jefferson Community and Technical College. It was first structured as a four-day immersion for faculty members just before classes started, but it continued throughout the semester with five one-day seminars where educators could meet face to face and discuss teaching strategies that were working in the classroom.

"A friend of mine says it broke her lecture and she can't use it anymore," said Marlena West, who has been teaching anatomy and physiology at Madisonville Community College for 25 years. "In research they've told us for years that the lecture is not the best way to teach. It has shown us how to break that lecture -- talk for 20 minutes, then do an activity where students are interacting with one another that reinforces that learning so it's not the same old 60, 90 minutes of lecturing," she said.

As a veteran faculty member, West has also seen her share of traditional training programs -- workshops and seminars that don't last beyond a few days in length.

"You kind of think you've seen everything and done everything," she said. "Me personally, I have benefited from it, but I know my students are benefiting from it as well."

West has some numbers to back that up as well. One particularly challenging exam, she said, has seen a 10-percent average grade improvement, results that she said are valid and significant. More concrete and generalizable results are also in the works, but anecdotal evidence continues to support the program's basic premise. Muto said that outside consultants are in the process of observing classrooms and making more rigorous evaluations.

The program began when the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, which is located in Louisville, approached the Kentucky system with the Content Literacy concept. The CTL had already had significant experience doing similar teacher training in the K-12 environment, said Hargan, and was ready to try to tackle some of the problems at community colleges. The Collaborative initially contacted Lumina, which became the major donor along with the Kentucky system, which was already taking steps toward a similar learning paradigm. It was time, Muto said, to "quit talking about it and do something."

After the initial spring 2006 pilot, the program expanded that summer into two more campuses. Muto said there is an average of seven faculty members in each of the four campuses involved with the program, a number she hopes to expand in a future phase. As the project continues, consultants with the Collaborative are helping to coach the participants and follow up as the training begins to become a part of their everyday teaching.

"This is not about having a box of Band-Aids. This is really about changing a faculty member's perspective on the teaching-learning interchange," Muto said. "The training process itself, which occurs over the course of a year, is about changing how the faculty defines their role in relation to the student and in relation to the learning."

Exactly how that's done depends on the teacher. But the training program emphasizes a number of approaches that focus on more visual learning processes and student interaction. Teachers who have participated also note that the methods aren't theoretical -- they're used in the program's workshops, so that teachers learn about new techniques through the techniques themselves.

Some of the tools covered in the workshops, according to Muto, include:

  • The "double entry journal" method, where students divide a notebook into two columns. One might be a series of questions they have about a subject before delving into the material, and the second would be the answers learned after doing the assignment. "What you're trying to do is get students to think about the topic prior to reading the topic and then reflect on so that they're actually using that knowledge," Muto explained.
  • The Frayer model, an information modeling technique that divides a square into four parts, each representing a different component of a topic -- say, the definition of a term and examples of it.
  • Lots of visual methods. "Representation of conflict management using Play-Doh," Muto suggested. "You have to facilitate this. What happens is that you wind up having students think about topics in very different kinds of ways and hoping to then get them to express themselves in ways that they may not have been able to before."

Ideally, the methods coalesce into a single teaching paradigm that views students not as "empty vessels" that exist to absorb lecture materials, but active participants who seek out answers to questions on their own.

Officials at the Kentucky system, as well as the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, hope to renew the Lumina grant before it expires in September. And representatives at Lumina and CTL said talks were ongoing, but both sides seemed enthusiastic. A second phase of the initial grant is already planned for the fall, which includes an expanded training program and a first-year course on critical thinking for incoming students.

Hugo Back, a psychology professor at Hazard who has been teaching there for 18 years, will teach the new course, but he's already had experience with the Content Literacy program in his own classroom. "I used to spend a lot of time telling my class to be quiet so they could listen -- now it's buzzing," he said. "The time just flies by, students like it ... and my test scores are great."

The ultimate hope is to expand successes in individual classrooms to the system as a whole, making what is now a single paradigm penetrate the larger teaching culture there.

"How can we affect wholesale change within a college? We know that we have to have a critical mass of people who believe in something -- now you’re really talking about being able to shift the culture within the college from one paradigmatic view of teaching to another," Muto said.

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