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Faculty "learn about learning" with CCLE program

"If you understand how learning happens, you will be able to teach better."

This simple premise has been the basis for what some consider remarkable change in the College of Engineering in recent years. It is the core of Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment (CCLE), a program that has grown from the dissertation of industrial engineer Katherine Sanders into a number of programs and projects across the Madison campus. In fact, CCLE is beginning to extend its reach to colleges across the country. All of the programs share a common goal of helping faculty focus on what and how students are learning.

Women of EPD 160

In an experimental women's section of EPD 160, students designed a crane to lift speakers and scenery into the catwalk system of the theater and drama department. From left to right--Bottom row: Karen Nielsen, Katie Fenner, Kari Monson, Kristi Hanson. Top row: Heidi Podoski, Stephanie Kidd, Caroline Cervenka, Anna Huppler. (36K JPG)

Participating in CCLE is a considerable time commitment. Faculty meet for an hour and a half every week during the academic year. In addition, there are readings and assignments. That in itself may not be so remarkable. What is different is that for the first year of the program participants rarely speak about how to improve teaching. Instead, they focus on the concept of learning. Learning turns out to be a Pandora's box. In exploring it, faculty deconstruct their own understanding of what it means to be a student in a classroom. Working as a team, they then build a consensus of what constitutes learning.

"It's terrific," says past participant Patrick V. Farrell (Professor of Mechanical Engineering). "Most of us come in on the first day absolutely convinced that the people who teach--say African Languages and Literature--couldn't possibly share the same concerns; that there is no way the things they are concerned about or the way their students learn could be in any way related to our students or the way our students learn. It seems it would be so different, that we won't be able to communicate sensibly. It's fun to see that attitude go away after about three or four meetings."

Only after this first year of brain-teasing analysis, argument and reconstruction are the faculty allowed to explore new methods or concepts in teaching.

"That is very strange and hard for people because they come in and they often have a very specific problem in mind," says program co-director Katherine Sanders. "But in order for us to address issues like that, we need to take a step back and look at how learning happens. The question of `Why aren't students answering my questions?' can be very complex and can have many solutions. But if we all understand how learning happens or doesn't happen in a diversity of learners, then we can, with a common language and understanding, address that question much more effectively. Or in fact, they can then address it themselves."

Once a group has diagrammed their common understanding of learning, they address questions such as: Why do people forget? How does pace affect learning? How does stress affect learning? How does the cultural climate affect learners and learning? After all this, faculty are challenged to step outside of all institutional constraints and design a course.

"We hope this will lead them to create things that don't exist now," says Sanders. "We are not really a teaching techniques class. We aren't about enhancing the lecture. We see our role more as having people question fundamental concepts like, Why do we have grades?"

That's not to say that CCLE does not enhance the lecture. Those that come back for a second year can study teaching assessment or have peers help redesign an existing course. Changes made in their classrooms are well documented. While faculty study issues in learning, Sanders studies them. Participant interviews are transcribed so that she can search for common themes in their experiences.

A 1997 study of CCLE's effects on students' learning and classroom experiences lists some of the common themes and classroom changes mentioned by program participants. They include: I changed the homework. I slowed the course pace. I'm experimenting with class discussion.

Hellstrom disects a boom box

Materials Science and Engineering Professor Eric E. Hellstrom used techniques learned in CCLE to make changes in all of his classes. (53K JPG)

As a result of his participation, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Eric E. Hellstrom has rethought the way he teaches all of his courses.

"An observer sat in on one of my classes and at the end debriefed me. She said `Did you have any idea that you asked 36 questions in class? You didn't get answers to any of them. You answered all of them yourself.' Now if I ask a question," Hellstrom says, "I get an answer."

Hellstrom says he made a number of subtle but effective changes to increase participation and understanding in his classes. One, called "think, pair, share" involves asking a question, having students work on the answer on their own and then work on the problem with a partner. Finally he writes the answers on the board. He says writing answers on the board is important because it takes away ownership and allows students to be wrong without being embarrassed. Another change involved making the reading assignments worth five percent of the grade and requiring a summary by the beginning of the next class. Previously, Hellstrom says, only a handful of students were completing the reading assignments.

"I thought I was gonna be eaten alive by the students," Hellstrom says, "because I started the reading summaries in the middle of the semester. But people did not complain. I actually had students in the class tell me it was very useful. It helped them keep up."

Because some of the new strategies take more time, Hellstrom says he covers less material in some courses, but he says it's better that students leave his course with a deeper understanding of the most important principles.

Farrell, Hellstrom, Sanders and colleagues Jay K. Martin, Frank J. Fronczak, Karen A. Thole, Michael L. Corradini, John J. Moskwa, John G. Webster, Richard Marleau, and John W. Mitchell also use their CCLE experience to continually improve EPD 160, Introduction to Engineering. This cross disciplinary design course for freshmen focuses on teamwork and hands-on design projects in the community. A number of faculty from various engineering departments attend and teach at every class. The course has shown success in retaining students in engineering early in their college careers.

"The course is a work in progress," says Sanders. "An experiment in the making where we can try things that were learned in CCLE, like sections for women and students of color, and see how they work and where the problems arise. What CCLE doesn't do is tell you what the answer is. All it does is raise a series of questions."

Note: CCLE is now a part of CCAE (Creating a Collaborative Academic Environment). The program is funded through the Provost's office.