Task force explores new, hands-on learning

Traditional lecture halls and book discussions may be undergoing a change at GW, as top University officials are exploring how today’s students learn with technology and hands-on activities.

Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman launched a 13-member teaching consortium task force last fall, which he said would discover the best ways to educate students and professors by examining different ways to reach students and teach professors how to connect with students to assess learning.

“Assessing learning does not mean you’re taking a course and getting a grade,” Lehman said. “We have global perspectives as to what a student should be able to do when they graduate, like critical thinking or connotative reasoning.”

The task force is co-chaired by Dianne Martin, associate vice president for graduate studies and Academic Affairs, and associate professor of finance Gergana Jostova. When selecting the team, Lehman chose faculty who “had already shown an interest in pedagogy” – the study of how people learn.

The task force will spend the next two months developing a more “comprehensive approach” to teaching and learning at the University, Lehman said. The task force is discussing launching a teaching center that would invite professors for brown-bag lunches and lectures on reaching students.

Lehman said professor of physics Gerald Feldman is a good example of the new teaching style. Using a “scale-up” model in his freshman physics class, Feldman inserted laboratory work directly into class lectures – the University even built a special classroom for this purpose. This environment allows students “to work on the concepts, and then to be able to do the experiments that are connected with what they are learning,” Lehman explained.

Feldman is currently on sabbatical but his methods are still being used in the basic physics classes.

“Teaching by telling is an ineffective mode of instruction and it’s been proven,” Feldman said. “In scale-up, lecture and lab activities are integrated and that’s important because you learn and then you immediately try it out.”

Students in the class say they first resisted the new model but have grown to appreciate the method of incorporating lecture, theory and practicality.

“When I was introduced to the ‘scale-up’ method I was resistant, because it was very different having to interact with my peers, but after the first month I really grew to love it. I loved interacting with the material more and I feel like my understanding of the knowledge is so much more solidified,” said Hannah Korrell, a senior majoring in Russian and pre-med.

Lehman said if Feldman’s experiment proves successful, he might ask Ballinger Properties, the architecture firm programming and designing the Science and Engineering Complex, to plan the building so that classrooms and labs are built together.

The idea of revising GW’s teaching methods first came from a brainstorming group commissioned by University President Steven Knapp. Lehman launched his task force in response, saying he wanted to “develop a plan that would allow GW to become a recognized national leader in its support for innovation and improvement in teaching and learning.”

The task force will develop a specific plan to encourage “faculty development,” Lehman said.

“We’re not the only university doing this sort of thing,” he said. “There are lots of universities around the country that are doing this.”

But the sciences are not the only subjects under consideration. In many departments, new variations on the lecture-based classroom may move students away from memorization and towards comprehension.

“For example, you can’t learn mathematics by memorizing; you learn mathematics by understanding the concepts,” he said, explaining that students might teach their classmates in order to improve their comprehension. “One of the best ways to have someone learn something is to have them teach it to someone else.”

Martin said the task force is considering different rewards for professors who participate, and “looking at the whole, big picture” to increase teachers’ effectiveness with their students.

“We were [compelled] to look at what it would take. We’ve looked at teaching centers across the country. Different teaching centers have different focuses,” Martin said.

The task force is looking for such a “focus” for a teaching center at GW, and a more specific plan in this area will be presented to Lehman in March.

Shelby Hartman and Lauren French contributed to this report.

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