Newsletter #40     CIDR Forum with Barbara Walvoord

Once per quarter, CIDR (= Center for Instructional Development and Research) stages a Teaching/Learning Forum. Topics have varied, and attendance has varied, but today they hit the jackpot: excellent speaker and a huge crowd. I think the fact that the topic of Engaging Students in the Learning Process should have packed the Walker-Ames Room to slightly beyond capacity is in itself an interesting and most excellent comment on the current climate of the university. I got the impression that some of those present were skeptical about whether it could really be done in their own particular circumstances, but clearly no one was there unless they genuinely felt it was a desirable thing to do.

The speaker was Barbara Walvoord, Professor of English and Director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning at Notre Dame--and a very dynamic speaker she was. Her opening commentary ran over what for most of us is, I suspect, familiar turf: Learning is not a Spectator Sport (me, I had always heard it as Mathematics is not a Spectator Sport--that's specialization for you!); the lecture as a primary mode of communication began to become obsolete when Gutenburg came on the scene; and one of the barriers to change is that, more or less by definition, those of us who inhabit academia are exactly the ones who were able to be engaged by lectures. We are psychologically geared to instruct our clones, but we can get pretty lonely looking for them (to paraphrase Henry Higgins: "Why can't a student... be like ME?")

So what to do? Walvoord has spent a number of years doing research on just that question. A couple of key insights resulted from inadvertent eavesdropping in the women's room, but more of them came from more conventional sources--classroom observation and study of students' notes (she shuddered a bit over the results of the latter) and delving into the literature on the subject [I have her bibliography--more typing than I am up for, but I'd be happy to give or send it to any of you.] The basic tenet at which she arrived is that the least intellectually rich and challenging stage of the learning process is that of the first encounter with new material. That is when the mind is slogging along, just trying to get some handle on the absolute basics. After that--and not necessarily long after that--comes the exciting part, where the mind is engaged in doing something with the material, and where the actual process of thinking and higher order reasoning and all those things that we treasure in academia come into play.

As things are currently almost uniformly structured, the standard procedure is to assign preparatory reading, then start class with "Any questions on the reading?" [blank silence] "Well then, who can tell me about X?" [even blanker silence] "I guess you didn't get anything out of the reading. I had better tell you about it." As Walvoord put it, they've trained us well. But by succumbing to this, we wind up using what is potentially the most valuable time--the time when we and the students are together--on this least intellectually valuable activity. Then the stage of mental activity and intellectual ferment gets relegated to homework time, when we are not around to be of any use at all. And if we try to renew the dialogue by spending a lot of time writing on their papers the things we feel they ought to have gotten out of the assignment or the test, we risk its being a soliloquy: "He must have wrote a book all over my paper", said one overheard student, "but I never looked at it--he had already given me a B." Walvoord concluded that unless we can solve the preparation problems, we cannot solve the use of classroom time.

She then proceeded to offer various proposals for doing so. The one that she described in the most detail came very much from a humanities setting, but seems to me unambiguously adaptable. The assignment involves doing certain specific reading, and then writing answers to a couple of questions that involve some thought about the reading "What was the issue at stake in this chapter?" "Can Bishop Bossuet's material be used as evidence on the issue at stake?" (I told you it was humanities.) Students bring in not one, but two copies of their written answers. One goes onto the professor's desk before class begins, and the other becomes fodder for class discussion that follows. The former gets recorded on a credit/no credit basis, with credit for any good-faith effort. The latter winds up scribbled all over with everybody's ideas, and by the end of class represents a considerably deepened understanding of both the issue at stake and the process of analyzing issues, evidence and arguments. The student presumably does some mulling and synthesizing after class, as well as preparation for the next class, but the intellectual heart of the course is right there in the class hour. Sounds pretty exciting--and engaging.

Her final example was one that one might think would strike closer to home: a physics course. The professor could not make use of techniques involving coerced advanced reading of the text, because there was no text that came close to doing what he wanted to do. So he made videotapes of himself carrying out experiments and talking about them, which students were required to watch before class. Then in class they grouped by threes (which, she points out, can be done even with bolted down desks) and worked on problems. This for some reason hit me with more of a hmmmm than an aha. But the humanities model had aha written all over it.

One final chunk of good news from the afternoon was that Walvoord has made a videotape specifically on interactive teaching in large classrooms. A half hour tape with examples of five varieties of interactive large class teaching, as I understand it. CIDR has a copy. Stand by for a really nifty Brown Bag sometime next quarter!

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