Talk About Teaching and Learning
November 22, 2016, Volume 63, No. 15
Making a Lasting, Real Impact on Students
Engage Students Outside the Major
My college dance history professor took breaks from lecture to perform dances—in costume—from the periods we were studying. That class, although it did not directly relate to my major in geophysics, was vital to my education. My professor understood that others like me may be going into the class with an existing joy for dancing (or not), but it was his job to help us to see dance as an art form that has evolved through time and impacted history. His engaging and creative style moved me to go beyond a simple memorization of the periods of dance and come to more fully appreciate how dance can tell a story, heal, imitate nature and more. Students learned not just when the Académie Royale de Danse was formed, but how dance often mirrors and influences our ideas of gender, style, politics and health—things we cared deeply about. I enjoyed the course, but more importantly it impacted my intellectual growth as an educator. As a scientist, I want my non-science students to say the same for my oceanography course. I cannot put on scuba gear and dive to the bottom of the ocean in front of the class, nor take my students along on an adventure across the Pacific, but I can try to open the doors of science in other ways.
I find three things to be very helpful in the process of opening those doors for students of all majors: varying the type of assignments, using multiple methods of teaching and making an effort to connect the course material to the students’ lives.
Use Variation in Assignments
I try to remember that students coming from different disciplines don’t always have the same familiarity or mastery with every type of assignment. One student may learn best from problem-based assignments, while another may thrive by completing an essay assignment. Aiming for some range of different assignments can ensure that students feel they’re able to put their best foot forward on at least some of the assignments, no matter what the content.
A friend once told me his favorite thing about his college earth science course was writing a poem for one of the assignments. I initially assumed that he had not taken a very “serious” course. But over the years I have continued to think about what he said, and I find myself adding more creative assignments, even poems (!), to my course. At the end of an exercise on Climate Change Impacts, Adaptations and Vulnerability the last prompt is, “Now, write a letter to your favorite (or least favorite) politician, diplomat or other notable public figure explaining what the likely climate change impacts are for their state/country.” The last prompt on the Seasons exercise instructs the groups, “In the creative mode of your choice (a letter, a poem, a very detailed picture, a song…), describe why we, on Earth, experience seasons.” I also give students the options to do a video or instructional pamphlet for their final project, as the result of a conversation I had with a student who told me how drawing the processes we discussed in class helped her learn the processes in a deeper way.
Incorporate Multiple Methods of Teaching
Using multiple teaching methods, including both lecture and active learning, allows me to more effectively move students toward those higher order learning objectives: applying content to a new problem, analyzing new information, synthesizing material and evaluating a conclusion or solution. For example, I often pair content with activities such as using real data to make a decision about where to put a wave power plant. I use other strategies like “jigsaw activities,” where the class is divided into several groups, each of which is to become expert on one aspect of the material being taught, and after some portion of the activity is completed in the expert groups, all students are redistributed into new groups, where they can share their “expert” knowledge and learn from others before tackling the final portion of the class assignment together. I also have students make predictions or solve problems individually and then share their answers with a student next to them before we discuss an issue as a class (“think-pair-share”). Alternatively, in “gallery walks” students move around the classroom responding to prompts on the board creating a visual guide to that lesson’s concepts that can be summarized and reported to the class as a whole by the students and instructor. I also like to throw in metacognitive activities like “minute papers” or “concept maps,” where students complete tasks—writings and sketches—that require them to think about their own learning process.
Connect the Material to Their Lives
The material we teach our students is important. We know this, but sometimes it takes being a bit more explicit, or incorporating a creative assignment or activity, to get the point across to our students. We’re told by cognitive scientists that students learn best when they have a context for the new knowledge. For example, Donovan & Bransford (2005, p. 4) write, as part of the Introduction to How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom that, “new understandings are constructed on a foundation of existing understandings and experiences.” This is crucial when emphasizing the importance of addressing preconceptions, but it also reminds us to connect the concepts in our course to those the students already care and know something about. In oceanography, I can build on the political science student’s interest in Conference of the Parties (COP21) when discussing ocean atmosphere dynamics and the greenhouse effect, the engineering student’s knowledge of renewable energy when discussing global tidal patterns and how tidal power plants operate, the history student’s background in 19th century British history when discussing early navigation advances, and so on.
What’s the point, and what else helps?
I work to make the relevance of my course more obvious and keep students engaged with the methods described above in order to deepen their understanding of Earth and help them acquire the fundamental concepts of science literacy. I want them to learn science so that they will vote intelligently, read the newspaper thoughtfully, make smart investments, appreciate nature and care for our planet. Admittedly, it is challenging to make a lasting, real impact on a student outside their major, but I find it easier when I focus on what I really want my students to learn and repeatedly remind myself and my students of both the oceanographic content objectives (e.g., I can describe the many active geologic processes that occur at plate boundaries and how these shape the bathymetry of the oceans) and science literacy objectives (e.g., I can explain the scientific process and how our understanding of Earth changes through time due to scientific investigations and the increasing availability of more information). While I want my students to learn a lot, it can be overwhelming, and I don’t want to teach a course that’s a mile wide and an inch deep (a criticism I received some years ago and tried to learn from). I want to teach a course that will stick with my students forever, as that dance history class did for me.
Jane Dmochowski is a senior lecturer in earth and environmental sciences in the School of Arts & Sciences.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.