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Ohio Today

A higher education
To prepare for tomorrow's demanding world, today's classroom is casting aside convention.

Debb Thorne
By Susan Green and Mary Alice Casey

Eric Rosecrants files into Morton 201 on a Friday morning in January with the rest of Debb Thorne's sociology class. It's 10 a.m., and if he and the other students aren't quite awake yet, they will be soon: The Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" is blaring from the room's sound system.

Down front, Thorne is strapping on a microphone, shuffling papers on her desk and ticking off thoughts on her fingers to make sure she hasn't forgotten anything. One thing she's sure to remember, Rosecrants knows, is to involve him -- and his nearly 400 classmates.

Thorne's student-centered approach to teaching is at the very heart of a concept both revolutionary and intuitive, cutting-edge and ages old. It's called engaged learning, and its premise is simple: As human beings, we retain knowledge and process information best when we're compelled to be part of the process, to contribute, to engage. Vastly different from restrictive, rote-reliant approaches to learning, it requires that professors step away from the lectern and students step up to the challenge.

It's a high-profile proposition at Ohio University these days. Thorne and the many other faculty who are determined to ensure it occurs take into account students' prior knowledge of a given subject and help them integrate new knowledge through analysis, application, reflection, social interaction and other means. Their tools might include problem-solving, informal writing assignments, group collaboration, case studies or integration of the latest technology.

Students, for the most part, seem to appreciate their efforts.

"Somehow she finds a way to make everything related to sociology interesting," Rosecrants says of Thorne. "She shows us real-life examples of how we can apply the material."

The day the Dixie Chicks opened for the first-year Ohio University professor, her topic was status symbols, and she had asked in advance that everyone bring an example to share. Students produced a romance novel, a pair of Nike cross-trainers, an empty Natural Light carton and hundreds of other items. Her contribution was the Chicks' 1999 "Home" CD (featuring a cut about an abused wife who kills her no-good husband), which conveys an altogether different status about its owner than, say, a Tchaikovsky CD.

On a first request to share their status symbols, a few students raised their hands. But participation swelled quickly, and Thorne soon was crisscrossing the room and calling on students by name. By name, in a class of 385.

Her trick? She meets one-on-one with every student who wants to spend time with her.

"I remember submitting my request for coffee and she was already booked two weeks from the day I sent the e-mail," Rosecrants says. "Not only does she know your name, but she also knows who you are, what you like to do and other random information. Simply by having students go to coffee with her, she defeated the large classroom setting."

Simply, it seems, by caring.

"It keeps me focused on the fact that they're pulled in a lot of directions, too," Thorne says of her coffee breaks uptown and long office hours. "It makes them not just a freshman or a sophomore or a sociology major or nonmajor."

In addition to taking a genuine interest in students, Thorne employs other strategies to encourage engagement. She adapts to different learning styles by navigating between PowerPoint slides, writing assignments and classroom discussions. She presents the material in an order that makes sense to her -- not to an author who arranged textbook chapters in a certain way. And she makes sure her class, large though it is, understands one concept before she moves on to the next.

Stephen Kopp jump-started the discussion of engaged learning when he took over as provost last July. His motivation is to see that Ohio University graduates are prepared for a world with higher expectations than ever before, one that places a premium on individuals who can think critically, solve problems creatively and adapt to change.

Cynics might claim that engagement is less achievable with a large class than a small one. Kopp doesn't buy the argument.

"Engaged learning has far more to do with the predominant organizing principle for the course and curriculum than the seating capacity of the room," he says. "If the organizing principle is the learning the faculty member wants the student to accomplish, then his or her teaching methods will reflect that. If the organizing principle is content coverage, then a one-way dialogue is more likely to occur."

This focus on the organizing principle and an intentional plan for learning transcends not only class size but class content, whether the subject is social science or computer science.

On the face of it, teaching computer science is straightforward: You present problems to your students. They solve them. Next lesson. Incorporating engaged learning methods seems antithetical and invites skepticism.

Lonnie Welch
But Lonnie Welch, the Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Stuckey Jr. Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, armed with inspiration from a University writing workshop, wasn't satisfied with what many consider tried-and-true approaches. He wanted students in his software engineering classes to achieve "deep learning," and he recognized that impromptu writing assignments could help them better absorb new material. That was last year.

This year, buoyed by that success, he fully grounded one of his graduate computer science courses, Real Time Systems, in writing. The course focuses on the design and characteristics of time-dependent computer systems that control everything from nuclear reactors to game software. Most professors wouldn't think of intensive writing as an important element of the course.

But to help students gain a better understanding of the concepts and learn to draft well-written research articles -- a useful skill as their academic careers progress -- he resisted the inclination to concentrate solely on nuts and bolts. To raise their comfort level, he even shared a recent research paper he'd written, complete with his editor's observations.

Because collaboration is key to the editorial process, Welch organized students into three small groups. Each student had to define a problem related to his or her field of interest, review current articles on the problem and draft a research paper for presentation to the group. Group members' feedback provided guidance that students took into account before their presentations to the entire class.

Toni Marinucci, BSCS '01, knew she might be pulled out of her comfort zone.

"I had him as an undergraduate, so I wasn't surprised with his methods," she says of Welch. "I liked the writing groups. They helped clarify my writing and identify gaps in my research."

David Fleeman, BS '02 and BSCS '02, on the other hand, didn't know what to expect.

"I was used to being handed a set of materials and a set of requirements," he says. "With Dr. Welch's courses, the materials and requirements depend on your own interests and self-motivation. You control the content."

Although Fleeman confesses to preferring more traditional teaching methods, he says using his thesis topic for the writing project allowed him to immerse himself in the material more than he might have otherwise.

Those are the very outcomes Welch says he's after.

"The high level of writing and interaction among the students increased their ability to clarify and articulate their ideas," he says. "That will help ensure they can make a smoother transition to the workplace."

There's a big difference, Kopp notes, between the workplaces of the 20th and 21st centuries. To be successful, graduates can't simply fill up on facts. They need to be prepared to think critically about issues and easily bridge the gap between vocational and intellectual pursuits.

"A learning community looks at the essence of learning, what it means and how it relates to the expectations society has of higher education," Kopp says. "We are preparing people for life."

Imagine a design studio that provides more than physical materials to make something. Matthew Ziff and David Matthews, assistant professors of interior architecture, have created such a studio.

Yes, it's a physical space crammed with computer work stations and supplies for creating three-dimensional models. But it's also an intellectual space, one that encourages students to become "pathfinders." That role demands they venture into the unknown, carefully noting the minor conditions that reveal which way to go.

Matthew Ziff and David Matthews
Sound deep? Perhaps. But it's an important concept to Ziff and Matthews, who say the whole point of the studio experience is to increase students' capacity for original thought.

"The studio is central to what students do," Matthews says. "It leads them to learn how to figure things out."

Problem-solving is central to good design. Once provided with specific project-related criteria, students work individually or in teams on "wicked problems," described by the late Horst Rittel, a design educator at the University of California at Berkeley, as ill-defined problems without clear outcomes. Solving them is the result of a complex process that challenges preconceptions and results in making something -- perhaps a scale model -- that didn't exist before.

"In the making of things, students are forced to engage the consequences of their thoughts," Ziff says. "They learn there are multiple answers to a problem rather than one answer, and that leads to a complex process of reflection, transformation and evaluation."

This is the first time many students have been asked to apply critical and independent thinking skills to the physical task of construction. By collaborating with faculty during an evaluation process, students further refine the problem-solving abilities they'll need after college.

"The goal of this collaboration is about training design students to react to a variety of situations," Matthews says. It's intellectually rigorous, he points out, but "design is an intellectual activity."

Engaged learning is a demanding proposition for students, Kopp says.

"It means they need to think, they need to question, they need to seek answers, they need to analyze and consider the answers they collect," he notes. "But the number of right or wrong answers that you deal with in daily work situations are few and far between. Most of them are best guesses or best approximations or decisions that we draw from available information."

Associate Professor of Chemistry Martha Kline slipped into a common trap.

Martha Kline
"I began teaching chemistry the way I was taught, which is very teacher-centered," says the Ohio University-Lancaster faculty member. "The approach isn't very effective, though."

More beneficial, she's found, is a learner-centered environment that encourages collaboration and shared workloads, takes advantage of technology and challenges students to assume responsibility for their first exposure to the material.

To accomplish the latter, she creates take-home packets that include reading assignments and exercises that cover basic concepts. This frees Kline to spend more class time helping students process the material, the most difficult part of learning chemistry.

Having made that and other changes to the class format, she turned to the physical environment. Fortunately, renovations to the Lancaster campus' Brasee Hall gave her the opportunity to create a new atmosphere.

A hybrid classroom/lab, the room features Internet access, computers, a DVD/VCR and an ELMO visual presenter for the projection of three-dimensional objects, slides and transparencies. Group work tables and an instructor's table for demonstrations encourage movement and conversation.

"I felt as if I was in a classroom where learning was the most important aspect," says junior Jon Larabee, who took Kline's Principles of Chemistry II class last fall. "Dr. Kline is not concerned with the quantity of information processed but the quality of understanding.

Now on Kline's drawing board is a project that will link general chemistry to social issues. Working in groups, students will identify a topic -- breast cancer is one example she offered -- research the related chemistry principles and describe how their findings could contribute to making responsible decisions regarding the issue. Students will summarize and present their findings to the class, which will vote on the best presentation.

"I'm cultivating an environment where students are engaged and feel comfortable taking risks," Kline says. "I want them to gain confidence in presenting their ideas and to become more involved with their own learning."

The enthusiasm of faculty is encouraging to Kopp, who says Ohio University can be a model among colleges and universities interested in increasing student engagement.

"I believe that the plan that is being developed by Ohio University is more advanced and will yield more substantial progress than has been accomplished elsewhere," he says. "Everybody has a responsibility when it comes to engaged learning on this campus. The idea is that we are in this together. We create the culture, the climate and the environment that all of the students experience, and it becomes part of the fabric of what we believe in."

New learning communities for faculty are important threads in this fabric. So, too, are such campus resources as the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Center for Writing Excellence and the Center for Innovations in Technology for Learning.

Kline and Welch are among nine professors who spent this academic year researching faculty learning communities and new teaching methods. Beginning this fall, each of the nine will start a new learning community that reflects its members' needs and interests. Those nine will start nine more and so on.

The communities -- focusing on such topics as learning styles, using technology to support learning and critical thinking in introductory classes -- can act as powerful change agents and promote collegiality.

"I was thrilled when I found out I had been accepted," Kline says. "I want to see Ohio University grow as a center for teaching and learning excellence. I think the learning communities will increase enthusiasm, communication, support and the exchange of ideas as well as act as catalysts for innovation in instruction."

Kopp also welcomes the involvement of Ohio University graduates in the engaged learning discussion.

"Alumni can be extremely helpful in sharing impressions of their own experiences as well as their thoughts as employers of more recent graduates and interns," he says. "We'd like their suggestions, their feedback on students or recent graduates they've employed, their referrals to others who can help -- whatever they'd like to share."

The provost also encourages alumni to help make more workplace learning experiences available to current students.

"We would definitely like to hear from anyone who has opportunities for current and future students to apply what they're learning," Kopp says. Possibilities include internships, service-learning endeavors and project-based learning options.

And with the help of technology, distance isn't an issue. Web-based internships offered by alumni have provided business, interior architecture and other students with valuable work experience.

"Proximity isn't as important as a willingness to help," Kopp says. "Alumni can provide students with learning experiences that foster the application of what they're learning in the classroom."

Susan Green is a writer for University Communications and Marketing. Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio Today.

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