Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Bridge

Casey WelchCasey Welch

Department of Sociology & Anthropology

Though overwhelmed, as most of us are, with myriad demands, I am honored that Dan Richard invited me, a sociologist housed beneath psychology's lofty third-floor offices, to participate in this new pedagogical project he has set up.

Teaching is both a profound endeavor and a mundane task. The profundity bubbles up from what Adam Carle and Rakita Gordon both describe as the pursuit for knowledge. This involves the search for truth, the subjugation of truth to hermeneutics, the recognition of our sub-rational ontology, and on and on into the boundless universe of ideas both sagacious and loopy. Education, of course, is not exclusively a Socratic search for knowledge. We are enveloped in a bureaucratic and mechanistic educational system that has schedules, specified subjects to teach, boundaries between departments, accreditation requirements, attendance, exams, academic discipline, and students with varying needs, demands, desires, and abilities. It is also a system that issues certifications or degrees that will get students better paying jobs. Because of these two often competing aspects of education, we find ourselves pursuing the high-brow aesthetics of knowledge while turning the knobs of the low-brow machine. And this is why Jules Henry, in his book Culture Against Man, describes modern education as simultaneously "fettering and freeing the human mind."

This split in our academic reality can be managed with thoughtful pedagogical philosophy. Indeed, I believe this is one of those areas where philosophy really does matter because it will guide us in disentangling the mess of reality and rearranging into a productive operation. In the contemporary pedagogical zeitgeist, one of the eminent concepts is student outcomes. Active learning is no longer measured solely by nifty course designs. On this issue I am aligned with popular discourse. To wit, taking into account, even measuring, student outcomes is an appropriate consideration in teaching philosophies.

In light of this popular and personal shift in pedagogy, I have been involved in several new course designs, including panel presentations, meeting with small groups of students to discuss their work, assigning students to structured study pairs and having them take the exams together, and bridging two courses in different departments. I would like to spend a moment describing the last course design, which John Davies and I call the Bridge Design.

When John, who is in Communications, and I began this project, we realized that his media course came from a psychological angle, and mine more from a sociological angle. Our first thought, then, was that the students from both classes would benefit from learning the information from the other class. That's the side of knowledge. We wanted to facilitate the exploration of endless ideas.

We also wanted to make the courses more interesting for students and more fruitful for them. With that in mind, and with a some preliminary research, we felt our courses would benefit from more student-to-student interaction. In other words, we wanted to improve student outcomes. We wanted students to enjoy the course, get personal attention, and improve their grades. This is taking into account the mechanistic reality of bureaucratic education--how to make a 75 minute chunk of time interesting and useful--and the student issues of varied learning skills and the desire for good grades.

Our third philosophical goal was that we wanted to be able to monitor both the delivery of knowledge and the impact on students. We wanted our courses to allow for more formative assessment.

Our new student-centered course design emerged out of an intricate collaborative faculty effort. The Bridge design allows students from two courses to teach students in their partner class. Students from one class, the summary class, read an assigned seminal article, discuss it with their professor, and then type a summary and critique of the article, which is posted on Blackboard for all students in both classes to access. These summaries become the teaching tools for their classmates: all students from both classes read and discuss them. Later, a panel of students from the second class, the panel class, presents to the summary class concepts they have learned in their own class that extend or otherwise critique the article. This course design allows for dialogue-based, active learning that crosses departmental boundaries and affords professors a formative assessment tool. Preliminary qualitative data indicates strong positive student outcomes.

Clearly this design has a variety of pedagogical philosophies under girding it--active learning; student-centered learning; dialogue-based education; student-teacher interaction; faculty collaboration; and formative assessment.

Philosophies alone, however, are not entirely adequate. We cannot assume outcomes are an automatic function of intentions. Our next step is to measure the impact on students. We are currently analyzing quantitative data that measures academic performance, student attitudes, and student collaborative behaviors.

When we finish coding the data and crunching the numbers, I hope to update you on the statistical measures of student outcomes.

For the time being, you can link to our first article, which describes the course design and qualitative findings.

Thanks for your interest,
Casey Welch

1 comment:

Dan Richard said...
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