Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Creating Communities of Learners

In their origins in the 12th and 13th centuries, the university--a name derived from the Latin word universitas--were not places; they were groups of people.  Specifically, they were guilds comprised of students and their instructors.  Sometimes students paid the instructor directly (as they did in the Roman period.  St. Augustine, for instance, traveled to Rome from Carthage in the hope of finding less rowdy students who would actually pay their tuition bill.  No such luck...).  Othertimes, the Catholic Church or the state served as an intermediary between students and teachers.  Not surprisingly, it was this latter method that gained a foothold and serves as the model for our current system of tuition paid to an institution rather than directly from student to instructor. The key bit of information that history has to tell us, though, is that universities are not about the brick-and-mortar campus; they are about the people who inhabit them.  Their aim, originally, was to bring together communities of learners with the instructor serving as an expert guide/personal trainer.

Somewhere along the line, higher education has lost sight of the fact that its primary function is to provide a physical space for communities of learners to form (and re-form in each class and in every new semester).  Particularly at state-funded (or, really, poorly funded by the state) institutions like UT Austin, the university and its classrooms have tended to be places for students to crowd into lecture halls for 50-75 minutes at a time, to be talked at by an instructor.  Now, many of our instructors are extraordinarily talented at delivering content clearly and in an entertaining fashion.  The problem is, once students are done listening, they go off on their own and try to do their homework.  They may well not know anyone from their class or have any idea how to get help.  The Course Transformation Program at UT is addressing this issue head-on in some of our most important "gateway" courses--courses that teach several thousand students each year and serve as prerequisites for upper-division courses.  In these courses, instructors are working closely with teams of learning specialists to provide extra support in class and encourage peer learning outside of class, among other things.

My Rome class, which has been dubbed the first of what will perhaps be a series of slightly different courses under the auspices of the CTP program (CTP 2.0), has at its center the belief that the classroom should be a place for supporting and encouraging the creation of communities of learners.  From the first day of class, I have incorporated daily "talk to your neighbor" questions.  I have encouraged them to use Piazza, a discussion board that strongly promotes peer-to-peer interaction.  On their own, the students formed a FB group.  Still, I really wasn't sure how much this overt shift in my teaching style, away from lecture ("sage on the stage") and towards a more student-centered and peer-focused approach was working.

The class has its first midterm exam tomorrow.  In some sense, it is also the first real opportunity I have to see the effects of the "peer-centered" approach I have taken.  I have taught large (100+ students) classes for several years at UT, including this Rome class twice before.  About a week before the exam, I am usually inundated with emails and office visits.  Typically, the students are either asking factual questions whose answers can easily be found in their textbook or in my lectures (but that would require them to have taken good notes); or they ask some version of "what do I need to know for the test".  Test anxiety is particularly palpable here in Texas where standardized testing has had such a prominent (and, to my mind, harmful) status.  This semester, I girded myself for the barrage and warned my TAs to be prepared.  After all, I was now dealing with twice as many students as earlier semesters.

To my amazement, I have had no students ask me any version of "what do I need to know for the test".  Not a single one.  Neither have my TAs.  They already know what the questions will be like because they've been practicing them in class every single day.  I had one student come to my office hours with a couple of questions.  She told me what she thought the answer was and then asked me to explain a couple of things that had piqued her curiosity.  It was just the sort of exchange an instructor longs to have with his/her students.  Instead of lining up outside our offices or shooting off emails, the students are posting questions on Piazza.  Typically, someone has already answered it before I ever get to it and they are all smart, reasonable questions that show them thinking and really grappling with the material.  It is truly remarkable. I am seeing a depth of thought, a willingness to wrestle with course content at a level I can't say that I have ever seen in a class other than a graduate seminar.

The students are forming study groups; they are egging each other on to work hard and ace the exam.  There's no curve so there's every incentive for everyone to help each other.  They have worked through the review questions I embedded in the recorded lectures as a class (it is posted on google docs).  Two brothers used an app they created to generate study guides for every recorded lecture; other students did study guides for readings.  Another student made e-flashcards for a list of terms I gave them and shared them with the class.  I am fascinated by the altruism at work, but also at the spirit of collective "let's work hard, learn this material, and do well".  The exam is written to reinforce this kind of behavior--after all, it is an introductory level course.  The key is putting in the work.  It's a lot of material, and I expect them to really know it.  But it can be learned with some elbow grease.  From all indications, they are doing just that.  The thing is, some kids may not do the reading and may not watch the lectures.  But they are still going to learn a ton from the distilled notes of their classmates.  They aren't getting away with anything, really.

What I've witnessed in just a month of teaching a flipped class is a complete shift in student behavior.  They have been trained to turn to each other for answers, to trust that their peers can teach them--and that is exactly what is happening as they prepare for this exam.  Sure, I am still holding a review session.  But honestly, I am feeling a little bit superfluous and left out.  I'm not complaining, to be sure, but am shocked at how little I am needed once I have given them the tools to learn.  These aren't the passive, helpless undergraduates I'm used to seeing (and helping to create when I, too, lecture at them).  They are active, self-sufficient, curious, and engaged.  It hit me that this is what a true community of learners looks like.  It's a beautiful thing.

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