Building Community for Active-Learning Pedagogies

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By Al Drushler
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

I recently attended a 3-day workshop on Problem-Based Learning (or PBL) at the University of Delaware. The main sponsor of the workshop was University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education, started in the 90s by a group of professors who wished to use more active learning strategies in their courses.

Problem-Based Learning is an instructional strategy in which students learn course concepts within the context of solving problems related to their field of study. The problems generally do not have a correct answer, but as the students work together to solve the problem, they locate information sources, develop fundamental skills and knowledge, and use critical thinking skills to formulate a defensible solution to the problems. The instructor moves between groups providing just-in-time teaching and assistance as students learn and work together to solve their problems.

On the last day of the workshop series, professors Harold B. White and Catherine Leimkuhler Grimes presented their findings highlighted in the article, Passing the Baton: Mentoring for Adoption of Active-learning Pedagogies by Research-active Junior Faculty. Several weeks later, I had the opportunity to discuss the article in more detail with my colleagues at the Research Study Group offered by our Instructional Innovation Committee. In this blog post, I’d like to provide an overview of the article and share some of the insights that our discussion provided.

Learning to Teach Through Mentoring

White and Grimes describe four approaches to professional development typical of educational institutions:

  1. Providing workshops
  2. Developing reflective teachers
  3. Mandating changes to teaching practices
  4. Developing a shared vision within a community of faculty

Throughout their article, White and Grimes reflect on their experience of implementing the fourth approach using a method of scaffolded mentoring in which Dr. White (who is nearing retirement) trains Dr. Grimes (who is relatively new to the department) in the use of problem-based learning, White’s primary method of instruction.

During the first semester of their development experience, Dr. Grimes observed every Origin and Evolution of Introduction to Biochemistry class taught by Dr. White, and the two met briefly after each class for discussion. The following semester, the two switched roles, with Grimes teaching and White observing–and the post-class discussions continued. By the third semester, Dr. Grimes was teaching the class alone without observation.

Throughout these three semesters of mentoring, the two professors shared teaching strategies, quizzes, exams, and other learning materials. And, to measure the effectiveness of PBL, each semester a pre-test and post-test on fundamental concepts from introductory chemistry and biology were given in this course as well as in three other related courses. The normalized gains were the highest in the problem-based learning course.

Insights from White & Grimes

In our discussion group, everyone was very excited about the information contained in this article. We reflected on the fact that experts can easily make the connections between the course material taught and the application of the course material. Novices do not see those connections immediately. If novices are taught only basic skills and are not provided with opportunities to explore concepts more deeply and to apply them, then they will not have opportunities to make those connections. Problem-based learning, when executed effectively and consistently, helps students make those connections more quickly and at a deeper level.

We were also struck by the intentional commitment that the two professors made to their own professional development. This level of mentoring was not required or mandated, but sprung out of a community that deeply believes in active-learning pedagogies and the impact they have on student learning.

Reflecting on the faculty community that White and Grimes describe brought to mind some of the many activities coming out of the Stanton/George Instructional Innovation Committee that aim to build a similar community:

  • Members of the math department at the George campus have been meeting regularly to discuss teaching activities and strategies.
  • The Peer Observation course developed by the committee allowed faculty college-wide to observe peers’ classrooms in a non-evaluative manner to learn new teaching strategies.
  • The committee meets regularly to plan workshops and other opportunities for faculty to come together to discuss pedagogical practices.

Which bring to mind some ideas that anyone can start today:

  • Find other faculty who are excited about the potential of using active-learning pedagogies and start meeting informally on a regular basis.
  • Observe a colleague’s class and meet to discuss the strategies used.
  • Co-teach or team teach with another member of your department.

It is my opinion that the community approach to professional development will have the deepest and most lasting effect on any educational institution. In this approach instructors work together, share innovative ideas, seek support, and design and implement courses that promote student engagement, critical thinking, and application of concepts and ideas.

References

White, H.B. & Grimes, C.L. (2015). Passing the baton: Mentoring for adoption of active-learning pedagogies by research-active junior faculty, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 43(5):345-357. doi: 10.1002/bmb.20885

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