Empowering Students, Learning Powerfully

To promote student learning, one of the most effective–but also most difficult and intimidating–things we can do as teachers is to give students more power.  We know students learn best when they construct their own learning, build their own knowledge. But much of ouMorePowerr intellectual upbringing, particularly in graduate school, centered around the notion of professor-as-authority. It’s a hard habit to break; we’re conditioned to appeal to authority in our fields and our own scholarship (“so-and-so’s argument has decisively refuted this notion“), and many of us were taught in a similar manner–mostly via lecture. When I began my own teaching career, I had no pedagogical training beyond an abandoned secondary-ed minor in undergrad and a three-hour TA orientation in which one of the panelists literally dozed off during the discussion. So I decided to teach as I was taught, and spent hours and hours crafting lectures on US and Latin American history that resembled nothing so much as carpet-bombing my classes with content. Sure, I had a vague notion that discussions were “good,” and that maybe I ought to have them in my classes, but I had no idea how to effectively do so; any success I had with discussions early in my career was due to student forebearance and luck more than any skill on my part. Within a couple years, I knew I had exhausted any potential for meaningful learning in my limited set of pedagogical tools.

My problem was that, in considering my own education, I had conflated “teaching” with “what happened inside the classroom.” In reality, though, we all know that learning can–indeed, should–occur throughout the college experience, both in and out of the classroom, on and off campus. The most powerful learning experience I had, bar none, was researching and writing my doctoral dissertation. I was living 1100 miles away from my home institution and advisor, so a lot of the process was even more autonomous than it usually is in History (which is pretty damn lonely to begin with, really). I was immersed in the research and writing process, occasionally checking in with my advisor and sending off chapter drafts, but I built that damn thing–all 440 pages of it–and learned an enormous array of content, skills, and habits of mind in the process.

So why, instead of framing this sort of experience for my students, was I doing all the heavy lifting for them? If I learned best by doing–and that’s true for dissertations, figuring out software, installing a dryer in my basement–then why wasn’t I allowing my students to do more? Why was I handing them everything in pre-packaged nuggets rather than allowing them to explore, try, fail, try again, and build their knowledge? That was a powerful realization, and has shaped my approach to teaching ever since–and the effects have been transformative.

This, as I later learned, is what the ed-psych folks call constructivism: knowledge is constructed. Learners have to build their own knowledge, often by such techniques as relating new material to prior knowledge and constructing the meaningful connections through their own cognitive efforts. It’s active learning. It’s what we know works, and what so much of our teaching culture is here at Grand View. And it’s the key to making teaching and learning transformative, something a student experiences personally, not vicariously.

To enable this construction of knowledge, we need to allow for the construction to occur in the first place. Do our courses, assignments, and activities give the space for students to explore ideas and approaches critically for themselves? Or are we merely dispensing pre-fabricated chunks of content? And, just as critically, how do we balance space to explore with the structure and support to help our students find their way and not flail about aimlessly? Constructivism is more than just telling students to go out, find stuff, build something, and check in at midterms. It’s creating an environment where that construction unfolds (and this looks different for various levels and disciplinary content, to be sure). It’s supporting and empowering students, not abandoning them. It’s helping them build intentionally and mindfully, but with allowance for serendipity and unforeseen connections, too. More than anything, though, it’s creating a culture of ownership in our classrooms, where we allow students the opportunities to own their learning, own the content, and own their own growth. And to do that, we have to give up some of our ownership.

This week’s links provide further discussion of these ideas: knowledge creation, constructivism, student agency and ownership, and our roles in creating places for them to occur. Enjoy!

What do we mean by “student agency” in the first place?  Why not see how a student views that concept for themselves? Andrew Rikard, a junior at Davidson, wrote a thoughtful post that allows us to do just that. “Student agency is not something that you give or take,” he tells us. Wise words.

Today, Hybrid Pedagogy posted a wonderful conversation about Instructional Design, trusting students, and creating the conditions for discovery. Sean Michael Morris and Josh Eyler, two of the most thoughtful voices in the Teaching and Learning community, have modeled here how to engage these important ideas in different ways, and to disagree while remaining generous and student-focused. It’s a great, thought-provoking read.

Theory and philosophy are important, but what does all this look like, specifically? How do we build opportunities for our students to become the agents of their own learning? What kind of active learning opportunities are out there? One of our own colleagues, Michael LaGier in Biology, published a piece in a recent issue of Faculty Focus in which he tells us how he’s incorporated student survey and instant feedback into his classes–without the cumbersome clicker systems which had bedeviled us in the past. And an intriguing suggestion comes from Emily Suzanne Clark on the Religion in American History blog, where she describes the “unessay,” an assignment with all sorts of possibilities for opening up space for students to explore content creatively.

Hopefully we’ve spurred some thinking on ways in which we can continue to promote active, engaged, and constructive experiences for our students. We’d be happy to follow up or delve deeper into any of this with you; feel free to contact us in CETL and we can begin the collaboration!

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This week’s CETL Library Spotlight features our new our new resources page for Blended and Online Teaching and Learning. Check it out!

Finally, if you ever wondered how an orphaned kangaroo goes to bed, here’s your answer. SO MUCH CUTE.