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Innovative Teaching/ Deeper Learning

Posted on Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Playing and analyzing Xbox 360 games in class is helping students grasp the pervasiveness of stereotypes. Giving up texting, meat-eating and driving is spurring firsthand understanding of environmental issues. Exploring Roman history through digital mapping is bringing long-ago places to life.

Those examples of creative teaching - which grab students' interest, push them to ask better questions and enhance their understanding  -  come from fall 2012 classes at Hobart and William Smith Colleges taught by Lisa Patti, visiting assistant professor of media and society; Joel Helfrich, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies; and James Capreedy, assistant professor of classics.

"The innovative assignments, teaching approaches and materials are designed to help students engage more deeply with course topics; develop skills of critical analysis, problem-solving and decision-making; and promote more meaningful learning," says Susan M. Pliner, Ed. D., associate dean for teaching, learning and assessment. The trend toward incorporating more active learning strategies into college classrooms, she says, "can be as simple as pausing during a lecture to pose a question for students to discuss in pairs or small groups, or a more structured activity such as asking students to develop arguments from assigned positions that they defend in class as a way to deconstruct complex issues."

And - as Patti, Helfrich and Capreedy have demonstrated - active learning can mean hands-on projects. That approach fits well with research that shows that people learn best when new material is scaffolded onto something they already know or have direct experience with, says Pliner.  "We attach new information to information we already have in order to make sense of it," she says. "Students consistently report that when a professor relates course content to relevant current events it enriches their understanding of the material and they have a way to connect to ideas and theories."

The Colleges' Center for Teaching and Learning, which Pliner directs, encourages new approaches by offering faculty innovation grants, which Patti and Capreedy received to help pay for the tools they're using. "The CTL grant recipients meet regularly during the semester to discuss their pedagogical choices, problem-solve issues that arise, reflect on their learning goals and assess how the different approaches enrich student learning," says Pliner.

Patti's Stars and Avatars

Students in Patti's "Stars (as in celebrity) and Avatars" class were psyched to be assigned to play video games for credit. But the course wasn't all fun and games. Students critically analyzed the virtual identities in the games, the forms of interactivity that digital games encourage and the way that digital avatars differ from film and TV characters.

"Professor Patti will assign a chapter from a book, and then ask us to play an online game or view a webisode for homework," says Devyn LaCamera, a junior majoring in media and society. "By combining the traditional style of reading with the unusual engagement of online game play, I find myself understanding the subject far better. I have experienced what I've read, and have also applied what I've learned to my gaming involvement."

To consider how women are portrayed, the class studied Lara Croft, the popular heroine of the Tomb Raider games, portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the film adaptation. "Due to Professor Patti's innovative approach, I learned that video games truly reinforce the negative stereotypes surrounding gender and race that exist in our society today," says LaCamera. "I have never experienced this type of ‘cross learning' where the material truly sets in and I feel myself becoming part of what I am studying."

The course included a gaming symposium in the library for groups of students to analyze game play. They considered issues such as the narrative complexity, avatar design and social relevance of various Xbox 360 games  and whether men and women played the games differently. Students created documentaries to summarize their findings.

Pliner says Patti's approach is adding to the relatively young field of gaming theory: "She's creating new content knowledge that doesn't exist in her field."

"Media and Society is one of the largest majors on campus," notes Patti, "and new media are an important part of the curriculum. Today's students are typically immersed in new media in daily life." Patti's class challenged them to examine their digital surroundings, including avatars they have chosen in electronic games and in digital environments such as Facebook. At the start of the fall semester, she had students list all of their avatars that they could think of - the different versions of their identity that were circulating in the digital world. They repeated the exercise at the end of the course.

"I think this is encouraging them to be really critical and thoughtful users of all the virtual resources they have access to," says Patti, who was an adjunct assistant professor at Cornell University before coming to HWS in the fall of 2011. People tend to assume virtual worlds would naturally be more utopian, but she helps students explore the ways that misogyny, racism and other ills persist.

Robert Harris '14, an economics major with a double minor in media and society and public policy, says that the class pushed students to think about reality vs. cyberspace. "Is reality looking and acting more and more like a game in terms of new technology we have, or are we creating video games to look more and more like our world?" says Harris. It's an interesting question, he says, because it addresses whether video games are really an escape and, if so: "Why are we trying to build games and game stereotypes such as gender, ethnicity and class into video game design?"

Patti assigned groups to design their own video game proposal that specified the narrative structure, visual design, interactive architecture and marketing for their game and the use of any star images as avatars. LaCamera's group came up with a plan for a western genre game called High Noon. "The guys in my group even wished we could create the game so they could actually play it," she says.

Mapping antiquities

In his fourth year at HWS, Capreedy has introduced his collaborative, online mapping project to help students visualize and better understand why certain cities grew and prospered more than 2,000 years ago. He even commissioned the development of a digital app so that students can map antiquities from smart phones and tablets as well as computers.

"I try to find a way to teach that makes them want to ask questions," says Capreedy. "When you can create something yourself, you're asking better questions."

The 31 students in his fall Roman History course each chose a city in the early Roman Republic (509 BC to 27 BC) from a list of 32 places. They had to find a photograph of the place, use a website to measure how far it was from Rome, write a 200-word description of the location's significance and determine its modern name. Each student report was uploaded to a shared map on a password-protected website where they could see each other's reports as pop-up boxes.

Later in the course, the students each tackled another city during a later period in Roman history and used geography to explain the success of the provincial expansion. The grant from CTL paid for web hosting, encryption and the work of a consultant who wrote the app.

Michael Paul Carr '14, who is majoring in English and European Studies with a focus in antiquity, chose Jerusalem and Antium (now Anzio), a small port town. Carr found the projects "a great way to get a better mental image of the Roman world on top of today's boundaries." .

Students also had to work in class in groups to discuss and work on their map entries. "Using and analyzing data is part of any scholar's job - or any professional," says Capreedy, who previously taught at Colby College in Maine and Santa Clara University in California.

Meredith Groman, a sophomore English major, says, "Students don't often get to see and interact with what their classmates have worked on." She says she'll always feel attached to "her" cities, including Brundisium (modern Brindisi) in Italy and Londinium (London).

Mapping helped her understand Capreedy's point that geography influences the prominence of cities and provinces because it affects the ease of travel and trade. The 350-mile Via Appia, a well-maintained roadway built for military transport and also used for trade, allowed people to get from Brundisium to Rome in two days on horseback. The ease of transportation allowed Brundisium to become a major naval port for the Romans. "It was also the major port for trade with Greece and the East because of its location in the boot heel on the Adriatic Sea," she wrote in her report, which was, along with the work of all students, posted online.

Capreedy says the mapping work helped students better connect to the places and information: "The discussions of how geography influenced the prosperity of provincial communities was much more sophisticated than I have had in the past, and this was in a large part due to the fact that students were asking more questions about the provinces than they have in the past." He is working with the programmer on improvements this spring and plans to use mapping assignments this fall in his "Fall of the Roman Empire" course. "In the future, I plan on using it in all of my history courses in some capacity."

By mapping and researching Lutetia (Paris), Caitlin Petty '16 learned that the city's proximity to the Seine River and the community's ability to mint coins for the Roman Empire made it a strategic city. "As a novice of Roman history, using the map to trace routes to Rome gave me a sense of the big picture, a greater perspective on the transformation and expansion of ancient Rome," the art history major says.

Pliner says Capreedy has challenged the students to think more deeply. "You can't just Wikipedia the information and cut and paste it," she says.  "The more students think about and use what they've learned, the better they'll remember it."

Capreedy, who keeps a street-level map showing Rome during the Age of Emperors (7 BC to 180 AD) over his desk, wants his students to be inquisitive and skeptical: "They're trying to solve a riddle."

The first semester's mapping projects went as well as he had hoped, Capreedy says. "They hit it out of the park."

Helfrich's environmental immersion

Pliner says a professor who talks in the abstract about sustainability and what's good for the planet could get a classroom of students nodding their heads. But the lessons stick better when Helfrich challenges the students in his "Sense of Place and Environmental Consciousness" course to try living differently one week at a time. They are supposed to go without a car, without a phone, without eating any animal products - and then write about and discuss the experiences.

Helfrich got that homework idea from Paul Kehle, HWS associate dean of faculty and associate professor of education. Kehle incorporates "sustainable experiments" in his 300-level "Teaching for a Sustainable Environment" course. As Kehle's syllabus notes, "To succeed, you do NOT have to adopt new values; however, you must reflect successfully on the experiment and its impact or lack of impact on you." Kehle developed the idea with students Nathan Taxel '07 and Christine Moskell '08 when they were part of a student-led experimental class at HWS.

Likewise, Helfrich doesn't expect students to follow the rule of the week perfectly or adopt it permanently, but he wants them to learn from trying. Their writings indicate they've discovered how much they rely on texting, on their car or on processed foods, for example.

"A bunch of my students are thinking differently about the way they eat," says Helfrich, who's been at HWS since the fall of 2011.. "I feel pretty good about that."

Rousseau Nutter, a first-year architecture major who's pursuing a minor in environmental studies, says he previously loved meat and ate it regularly. During the course, he found it pretty much impossible to go without meat, and then without meat, eggs and dairy. But his reading and class discussions led him to become a vegetarian, and he plans to convert to a vegan during the summer.

Helfrich says the goal is to teach students to read, think, and write critically - and then to do something. "I agree with influential educator Paulo Freire, who stated, "I can't respect the teacher who doesn't dream of a certain kind of society that he would like to live in, and would like the new generation to live in. [Educators should pursue] a dream of a society less ugly than those we have today." I firmly believe that it is my duty as an academic to engage myself in the debates that take place within our societies and to share those passions with my students. To those ends, I use and share my research and interests with my students. Most importantly, in every class that I teach, I ask students to: view the course as a place for testing ideas; engage fellow classmates in dialogue, discussion, and debate; build on what they already know; and challenge personal ideas and perceptions."

He further connects students to environmental topics by assigning them to write about their hometown, and by inviting guests with striking personal experiences on environmental issues to speak to students.

The hometown writing was inspired by the late HWS Professor of English Deborah Tall, who pioneered the "sense of place" essay. Helfrich has taken it further by having students submit shorter versions of their pieces to Orion magazine, a 30-year-old bimonthly focused on nature, culture and place.

In one semester, the magazine chose 28 student essays out of 58 submissions to publish online. The HWS student essays captured the sights, sounds and smells of such diverse places as Staten Island, N.Y.; undeveloped woods in Massachusetts; a mountaintop in Maine; and the shore in Rhode Island. The spring 2012 Orion print edition included an essay by Genevieve Moralez '15 about a sports field at her high school in Harlem where she enjoyed the smell of freshly cut grass, played lacrosse and watched squirrels and dogs run.

To write about a place, students have to consider what makes it different. "They haven't really thought about it," says Helfrich. "The work helps awaken their environmental consciousness. Knowing their essay could be read by a public audience elevates their attention."

Daniel Budmen '15 nominated Helfrich for the Elizabeth Thorndike Award - given by the Center for Environmental Initiatives (CEI) in Rochester, N.Y. - because of his passion for teaching, for the environment and for creating sustainable social change through education.

His first year, Budmen was particularly struck by a guest speaker whom Helfrich invited. Harold Brown, a third-generation livestock farmer, told students in the "Sustainable Communities" course that he decided to change his farm to only plants after suffering a heart attack at age 18.

"I remember leaving this lecture questioning my values towards animal rights, and furthermore, my beliefs about the broken food system in the United States," says Budmen, who is double majoring in geoscience and public policy. "Our next class meeting, Professor Helfrich encouraged students to take action."

That summer, Budmen converted his backyard garden from dead bushes to organic vegetables. His family enjoyed local, sustainable food all summer.

Helfrich says his goal is to have students figure out what their passions are and follow them. "I'm trying to constantly think of ways to get them engaged in their community," he says.

 


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