Sharing the Teaching, Sharing the Learning

Sharing the Teaching, Sharing the Learning

Robert Hawkes
1988 3M Teaching Fellow

hen most of us think of university teaching and learning, settings such as lecture halls, teaching laboratories, and seminar rooms come first to mind. However, I would like to argue that undergraduate research experiences offer the most fertile ground for meaningful, long-lasting, and potentially life-changing learning. It is here that the learning is most active, creative, student-directed, interdisciplinary, collaborative, discovery- based, experiential and open-ended.

The Boyer Commission prescribed “Make Research Based Learning the Standard” as the first of ten ways to improve undergraduate education. In a recent article on physics teaching, Rowat argues that undergraduate research experiences offer an effective way for students to see that the subjects we teach, whether they be English Literature or Physics, are products of human creativity.

When I first began my university teaching career, I mistakenly thought that I had an obligation to be an expert in all aspects of the research. Fortunately, I quickly discovered that the student working with me knew far more than I ever could about computational aspects of our project that summer. A true collaboration, in which the student and the faculty member bring certain areas of expertise to the problem, leads to a far better learning environment. Just as too didactic an approach stifles learning in our lecture halls, faculty must not be over directive in the research laboratory. The history of science is full of stories of discoveries made because student researchers or research assistants took the liberty of following paths other than those suggested by a supervisor.

Student researchers should play important roles in defining and modifying the research problem, brainstorming potential approaches, considering all aspects of data collection and analysis, and communicating the research results both in the form of written papers and conference presentations. I call this sharing the learning (or sharing the research). This does not mean, of course, that the faculty and student researchers will play equal roles in each of these aspects. Lopatto has recently summarized some of the points characterizing an effective undergraduate research experience.

Of course research experiences are not the only ways to integrate research into the undergraduate curriculum. Courses can be taught with problem-based learning and inquiry-based approaches. Components of courses can integrate research skills through projects and other collaborative, independent approaches.

If we should share our learning (research labs), then we should also share our teaching (classrooms). We all learn best when we teach, and to the degree possible we should provide opportunities in our classes for students to learn by teaching. In our experiential physics approach at Mount Allison, we have replaced a lecture+lab approach with integrated collaborative learning experiences taught within a laboratory setting. While there are many components which work together for the success of this program, in my opinion the most important is that students in their collaborative groups have frequent opportunities each class to discuss problems, experiments and concepts. Through this collaboration students intertwine teaching and learning.

Of course we can, and should, involve our students in other ways in teaching during their undergraduate experience. The most direct means is through employment as undergraduate teaching assistants. Our conversion to experiential physics has placed new challenges on out undergraduate teaching assistants, and the success of our program is in no small part due to their skill and enthusiasm as teachers. We offer periodic workshops on teaching topics, and a certificate program to recognize competence in teaching assistant work. Just as in the research lab, the more that the faculty member and the teaching assistants can be colleagues, the more successful will be the learning environment. There will be some aspects of the teaching that the student teaching assistant will be more skilled in (for example they have a conceptual base closer to that of the students, and as a result may be able to find a more effective explanation for a difficult concept), while in others the deeper subject experience of the faculty member will be important.

Other experiments in student teaching have included student teaching in classes. In these, we do a disservice to our students if we encourage or accept didactic modes of presentation when we truly believe that interactive modes of instruction are more effective. I suggest that when we have student “seminars,” we should ask students to consider (and state) learning objectives for the class, and how they will make the learning interactive.

The way our collaborative learning classes work is that groups raise their hands if they need assistance from the professor or student teaching assistants. Sometimes the groups are happily making progress and a number of minutes go by without anyone asking for help. I sometimes joke at these times, “Does anyone need any help, I am feeling useless.” Of course, upon reflection, I guess that should be our goal as university teachers: to become unnecessary so that our students can learn fully without us. I would argue that key avenues to this ultimate goal are to share, truly share, both our classrooms and our undergraduate research laboratories.