Sunday, April 17, 2011

Read, write, learn (Part 1)

I’ve recently finished reading by Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. When it came out, it was controversial
because in essence the authors claim that American students are not learning all that much in college. Certainly there are cases where students are learning a great deal but they posit that many students are never really challenged and attain baccalaureate degrees regardless. Employers often echo those concerns as many new graduates lack critical thinking and communication skills. Beyond a specific skill set that accompanies any degree, students should learn how to think critically, read well, and write clearly.

So what are their recommendations?
1.  Ask students to read and write more.

2. Set and maintain high expectations.

3. Connect with students in and out of the classroom.

In essence, if we ask them to do more, they will spend more time reading, writing, and thinking and therefore, learn more. And when we’re with them, we need to do more than just talk. We need to listen and work with students. It's simple and makes sense but of course, simple does not mean easy.

Reading the book made me pause about my own classes. I’m under the same time pressures that all faculty live under which often force me to lecture to “cover” the material. But when I do, I wonder what they’re learning. Whenever we have time to dig into a topic and do an interesting activity or solve an interesting problem, the atmosphere is always different and better. They talk with each other and me.  They talk about math. In other words, they learn. Or at least, it appears that way. If nothing else, it's good for my self esteem.

This phenomenon is one of many reasons the new MLCS course is exciting to me.  It was planned with the idea, “how would we build a course in terms of content and pedagogy if we could?” It isn’t a redesign of a previous course but a new thing in and of itself. And because of that, it has all those things many faculty want or students need: time for collaborative work, reading assignments, writing assignments, and time for lecture. I don’t want to give up lecture nor do most faculty and for that matter, students. But we don’t need it all the time and students don’t either.

Part 2 of this blog will detail how MLCS is being built to invite learning.  And coincidentally, the approach addresses the recommendations given by the authors of Academically Adrift.

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