As university professors, many of us have very busy schedules of teaching and research. For some, the first passion is research. But for many of us, it is teaching. To have the chance to talk about our research in our field of interest and expertise is very exciting. To be able to share our knowledge with students who might some day apply or extend our work can be exhilarating. As committed teachers at the higher education level, it is important to ask ourselves, what kind of learning experience do we want for our students? Theoretical? Practical? Applied? Integrated? Meaningful? Relevant? Most of us would answer that all of these were desirable types of learning experiences for our students.
When I think about my current students, I am reminded of those teachers in my past who have inspired me and remember the excitement of learning, the thrill of discovery, the motivation to learn more. I remember my grade three teacher who took us to her house for a field trip along the side of a lake. We were all so excited! I can still describe the activities she had us involved in that day, some forty years later. I am reminded of my fourth year biology professor who took us out to local marshes to observe the ducks we were learning about in class. His enthusiasm was contagious. I used his stories throughout my own career as a high school biology teacher. My professor’s interest and curiosity was evident in everything he did with us in class and I wanted to emulate that kind of teaching when I entered the classroom.
Why was what my professor did so seductive? Years later, I returned to my alma mater as a professor and he was still there teaching. His enthusiasm for what he did had not waned. I spoke to him about the way he inspired me and could repeat stories he had told us in class twenty years earlier. While flattered, he was dismayed to think that not all of my professors had provided the same kind of learning environment. We talked about what had made the difference. He had been active in the class, lively in his movements, and dramatic in his stories. He engaged us in the material. He asked for personal stories and told many of his own. He took us to the locations he talked about in class, getting us to walk round the marsh, collecting samples, making observations of the ducks and their habitat first hand. The learning was real AND relevant to us. Even though we were twenty year old university students, our professor talked about ducks in a way that connected to our lives. We could relate to it and understand it more fully because we were more deeply engaged with it.
The fact that we saw that learning could take place outside of the classroom walls also made the learning environment more enticing to us as students. We were able to meld the theoretical and the practical because of what we experienced. Our professor facilitated our learning and provided us with information and experiences that made the learning relevant and meaningful.
Opportunity and Ownership
Two things can help students really engage in their own leaning. They need both opportunity and ownership. A system of lectures, where a professor is the provider of the knowledge and students are passive receivers, does not provide the kind of opportunities most students thrive on. Through opportunities for true engagement, student ownership of learning grows. Through an increase in autonomy, the students engage in their learning in a way that can improve critical thinking and take them beyond it as well. Student ownership and autonomy can be increased by allowing students to make some decisions in the course, such as offering choices in assignments. Also, having students lead class discussions by reading the text ahead of time, and then bringing guiding questions to class, can engage students in a deeper understanding of the material we are trying to teach.
Through a more holistic approach, which includes activities outside the classroom, we can work together to create a more integrated person in our graduates. Changing the learning format challenges the conditioning of twelve years of grade school. In the lecture room, one kind of student dominates. In a holistic, engaging environment beyond the classroom walls, we can take our students further than is possible within the university lecture hall. This increases opportunities for learning and helps develop the kind of ownership in learning that will help students excel.
Broadening our focus
In my undergraduate degree program, the focus was largely placed on intellectual achievement. I am not suggesting that we diminish this focus in any way, merely that we go the extra step. We all might agree that many students at the university level are self-absorbed, but we provide little opportunity for them to explore issues and ideas that might be crucial in their future decisions and understanding of themselves. It is a time in life when many are asking life’s important questions and questioning what they will do when finished their degree. Yet, there is little time to focus on these queries.
The seductive professor is one who entices his or her students into an environment where their intellectual learning is partnered with learning of a broader kind. We need to create philosophers, biologists, and economists, but surely we also want ones who are in touch with the human condition. We want students with a sense of fairness and generosity, with determination and ingenuity, students who have wisdom mixed with practical competence. We need more students with a sense of humanity and an understanding of the issues and agendas in society. Too often personal experience is regarded as an extra, something lacking the rigor of other assignments. Instead, we need to increase the opportunity for our students to engage in the curricula in personal ways, so their personal stories increase their understanding of the material, not in a way that replaces the content they are learning, but in a way that deepens their understanding.
Learning theory shows us that we should make connections between new learning and learning discoveries we have already made. What better way to do this than to ask students to revisit their learning through personal examples and experiences, and then by giving them new experiences to add to this personal history of learning.
In a holistic, engaging environment beyond the classroom walls, we can take our students further than is possible within the university lecture hall
One way students are offered a variety of relevant and meaningful experiences is through service learning. Service learning is a form of experiential education where students work with community members on local problems and where academically rigorous assignments are designed to explicitly link those experiences to specific learning outcomes. When students are challenged to use their service experiences to better understand concepts, then they can begin to understand the causes of the problems their service addresses. Their learning takes on a deeper level of relevance. Service learning can include activities that are of direct service to the public, providing administrative support, doing consulting projects, assisting with resource production and completing community-based research on behalf of an organization.
In A Life in School, Jane Tompkins says that “tying course content to the world outside offers a real-world site for asking theoretical questions; it answers students need to feel that their education is good for something other than a grade point average. And it begins to address the problem of the student who has no conception of what is possible after graduation…”
In service learning, students become involved in projects outside of the classroom, applying the skills and theories they are learning on campus. The students can recognize ways to use their learning in relevant and meaningful ways. Not only do they develop improved critical thinking skills through linkages to deep analysis of issues, students also gain skills not always found in lecture-based courses— i.e. needs assessments, interactive goal setting, designing and implementing evaluations. In addition, the issues are examined in a human context, with real people. In service learning experiences, students must interact with those directly affected by the issues they are studying. Service learning is an innovative way to integrate experiential learning, academic study and community service. It builds upon a tradition of social responsibility and brings a philosophy of outreach to the undergraduate academic experience.
the benefits to students and describe ways that student participation in service learning programs proves to be a valuable adjunct to classroom education, in addition to providing students with direct service experience which can benefit future career options. Professors have also described how having students describe their experiences for classmates can enhance everyone’s learning. Service learning provides students with an opportunity to learn the importance and impact of their learned content on people’s lives and behavior. Students sincerely appreciate the opportunity service learning provides to assist and learn in their community, to share what they have learned and to feel that their work does make a difference.
Using service learning means making some changes in the approaches we use as professors. It means giving up some control/autonomy and allowing students to be more responsible for their own learning. It means less lecture time and more application of learning. We need to create a studentcentered course instead of a teacher-centered course and use different types of assignments that fully harvest student learning from service learning placements.
Faculty who use student-centered approaches like service learning are the professors who say they ‘teach students’ not those who say they teach a specific content area. These are the professors who self-evaluate their teaching and who read student evaluations with genuine interest and concern. They focus on student interests and values when planning their courses and classroom activities. They are the kind of professors who think about where their students are and where they want them to go. These professors want their students to be engaged in the application of learning and feel connected to the community where their learning is applied. Is service learning the only way to engage students more fully? Of course not, but it is one way to enhance the learning experiences for our students in a relevant and meaningful way.
The Inspiring Professor
What kind of professor ensures students are given these opportunities? It is the professor who is still learning with their students everyday who can best retain the enthusiasm that students draw on for inspiration. Professors who continue to inquire, for themselves, about their field of expertise and about the connections between their field and other related areas, are those who can offer opportunities for students to delve into meaningful learning experiences. When we love learning, it is apparent to our students. It is evident in the way we teach, and the way we think about our role as teachers. We want to share what we know and we want others to experience the same exhilaration we feel when we discover new learning.
As professors, we have a responsibility to support our students as they move through an important period in their life. It is a time of uncertainty for many, a time of great deliberation and thought, a time of decisions and changes. Many of these decisions and changes are personal in nature and students need a foundation of more than intellectual support. It is vital that we also engage their spirit and their conscience as well as their thinking. Too often, we fall short of providing them with the kind of opportunities that will extend their chance to learn as fully as possible.
We need to take responsibility for the development of the whole student. We each have a social obligation to produce the finest students we can. Imagine if all students were engaged in learning with enthusiastic and passionate professors. They would be involved in learning in a way that could address societal issues with the same passion and commitment their professors exhibit. Idealistic? Perhaps. But after all, that is why many of us entered teaching in the first place— to make a difference in the lives of students and in society. AM
Ann Sherman is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary