Changing teaching styles to match how people learn

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Jean FlormanJean Florman

Commentary by Jean Florman for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Innovation has been a hallmark of American education since at least the time of Thomas Jefferson. The nature of that education, including who had access to it, has changed significantly during the last two centuries and continues to evolve today. The definition and achievement of educational excellence in higher education is on the cusp of potentially dramatic transformation, and the University of Iowa has become a leader in creating and assessing a number of innovative approaches to undergraduate teaching and learning.

“Innovative teaching” does not simply mean making a class more interesting or fun. In fact, the shift to new teaching strategies is founded on decades of research on how learners — of any age — learn best and for the long term. Transformational learning experiences encourage “learning by doing,” offer opportunities for collaborative learning, provide frequent, rich feedback from instructors and peers; and require students to apply and assess what they’ve learned. At UI, the shorthand for this array of approaches to teaching is “TILE: Transform Interact Learn Engage.”

Excellent teaching does not mean a wholesale shift away from lecture, which continues to be an efficient, effective and often engaging way to convey information. Iowa students benefit from a balance of learning contexts: lecture/hands-on, individual/collaborative and memorization/application.

Innovative approaches demand much from students and instructors alike. Students are challenged to take the content they have learned through lecture, readings and other activities and apply it in new contexts, analyze and articulate their thought processes, synthesize their learning across courses and disciplines and engage their instructors and fellow students in fruitful discussion of important issues.

For their part, many instructors are rethinking the traditional course as primarily an exercise in knowledge-transfer and instead are designing courses around the learning objectives they want students to attain. While those objectives include the acquisition of foundational knowledge, much of that process can take place outside of class time so that when class begins, students come prepared to wrestle with the more complex and difficult intellectual tasks of understanding, analyzing and synthesizing that knowledge. The classroom can be a place where students actively engage with challenging problems and issues, working collaboratively with their instructors and peers to enrich and deepen their learning experience.

This “flipped” model can be facilitated by an array of technologies. Some UI instructors videotape brief lectures and problem-solving examples that their students are then expected to watch online before coming to class. Faculty members also are creating tailor-made reading materials in the form of e-texts that can be adapted to their teaching style and the student learning needs of a particular class. And UI is a national leader in the creation and assessment of technology-intensive TILE classrooms that encourage collaborative, active learning. Of course, innovative teaching and engaged learning also can take place in the simplest of settings with nothing more than chairs, notebooks and whiteboards.

Much like success in the “real world,” innovative teaching requires a certain tolerance for ambiguity and risk. But as students approach the time when they will leave the academy, these creative approaches to teaching can give them the confidence to engage deeply and collaboratively in identifying and addressing long-term, real-world problems.

These issues will be discussed in an upcoming WorldCanvass show "Teaching Innovation" on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, from 5-7 p.m. in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum. Admission is free and open to the public. More information.

Jean Florman is the director of the University of Iowa Center for Teaching (dft.uiowa.edu).

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