A Team Approach to Teaching Innovations
“Participating in the Academy this year has been the highlight of my time at Assumption College. My entire time at Assumption,” Professor Cinzia Pica-Smith said, right before launching into a presentation on how she overhauled one of the major courses in her department.
She was describing her experience in the 2015-2016 Teaching Core Courses Academy sponsored by the Assumption College Center for Teaching Excellence. On Monday, April 11th, we held our concluding session with a public presentation of our work to the campus community. The presenters described students constructing Maypoles to learn the beauty of doing mathematics, considering the theme of the refugee crisis to situate human services in a broader consideration of systems as well as service learning, and creating digital video footage to delve deeper into history, among other innovations (see below for full descriptions of each project).
Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, a group of eight faculty members representing six disciplines on campus joined me to answer a challenge: how could we design or re-design innovative new courses and course projects for our students in ways that would engage them and maximize their learning?
The Academy opened in August of 2015. In advance of our first session, we read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do, which still represents for me the top book on teaching in higher education. Our first meeting was a half-day session in which we described the courses we wanted to invent or revise and discussed the implications of Bain’s work for our plans. Thereafter we met throughout the fall semester on a monthly basis over dinner, each session lasting ninety minutes. We shared readings, videos, and discussion board posts on our virtual learning platform in order to help inform our conversations, which grew increasingly lively and impassioned as we began testing out ideas on each other, sharing progress, and growing together as a team.
We shared readings, videos, and discussion board posts on our virtual learning platform in order to help inform our conversations, which grew increasingly lively and impassioned as we began testing out ideas on each other, sharing progress, and growing together as a team.
In January we read our second text, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and began to really dig into the details of what our courses would look like. We met for two additional sessions, and then as a group we attended the CTE’s annual Innovations in Higher Education lecture with Sarah Cavanagh, author of the forthcoming book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion.
Our work together concluded with the presentations on April 11th, which showcased a range of new and exciting courses and projects. Two of us decided to create a major video project for our students. Mark Christensen, Assistant Professor of History, wanted to engage his students in understanding and improving public perceptions of history. He asked his students this spring—and will expand the project next fall—to work in groups to interview fellow students about major historical events or people or trends, and then create videos showcasing the contrast between public understanding of those historical events and the more informed perspective of historians. Students in my literature survey courses, meanwhile, will be launching the Assumption Survey Project, and helping to create a bank of 3-5 minute videos on historical topics that provide context for the literature taught in British and American literature courses. These videos will be posted to a YouTube or Vimeo channel and can be shown in class or assigned as homework to students in high school and college classes around the world.
Two of our faculty members decided to flip their courses. Associate Professor of Natural Sciences David Crowley couldn’t wait for next year to make his changes, and flipped his spring genetics class. Before class students read the texts, watch video lectures, and study animations or other course material; in class they ask questions, solve problems, and discuss their understanding of the material. In an effort to improve their metacognition, they also assess and articulate their understanding of the course material for every class period. Bob Caron, Assistant Professor of Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies, likewise plans to flip his introductory class next year. In addition to the usual work of the flip, Bob will have his students learning about the work of a local non-profit agency and then creating for them a PSA (public service announcement)-style video that they can use in their promotional campaigns.
Cinzia Pica-Smith, also an Assistant Professor of Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies, wanted students in her upper-level course in principles of case management to gain real-world experience that would help them connect the work of the course to its global contexts. Her students began working this spring with refugees who have been resettled in our city of Worcester, and came up with a host of innovative ways to educate themselves, the public, and political leaders about the plight of local refugees.
Lynn Simmons, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art, worked on a re-design of her introductory course in graphic design. Grappling with the fact that students in the course brought into it many different majors and interests, she created a model in which students will be able to draw upon their major course work or interests to contribute to a course textbook which will also feature student-created art and designs. The final version of their work will be produced as both a printed book and an e-book.
Associate Professor of History Carl Keyes wanted students in his history courses to move beyond writing for an “audience of one” (i.e., the professor) and engage in the process of creating public history. His students will be drawing throughout the semester on the power of Wikipedia both as a teaching tool and as a site of public history. He will use the Wikipedia Education Program to work with his students on creating and revising Wikipedia pages stemming from his course content.
Finally, two faculty spent the year designing entirely new courses. Brooke Andersen, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, put together a course called Discovering the Art of Mathematics, in an effort to help non-majors appreciate the beauty of mathematics, and see its relevance to the world around them. They will be working with problems and projects designed to illustrate mathematical patterns and structures, such as maypole dancing or Rubik’s cubes or string art. Esteban Loustaunau, Associate Professor of Spanish, created The World is Calling: Vocation Across Cultures, for students in our sophomore-level SOPHIA program. They will be asking and discussing questions about their vocations and life purpose, and launching an ongoing blog that will continue beyond their college years, with each new class of students benefiting from the wisdom and insights of those who have gone before them.
Working with this group of faculty, engaging in these monthly discussions about teaching and learning and our students, has been one of the highlights of my academic career. Next year the CTE’s Sarah Cavanagh will be joining me in our work as we look forward to welcoming eight new participants to the (re-named) 2016-2017 Course Innovation Academy. Check back here for updates on the courses we created, and on next year’s incoming Academy classes.
For readers outside of Assumption, feel free to drop me a line with questions about the logistics of our program, such as behind-the-scenes work or course materials. We’ll be happy to share ideas and experiences.
And best wishes to all for a great finish to the spring semester.