Friday, June 28, 2013

Learning is Messy (and risky)

Last week I attended the 26th International Conference on the First-Year Experience in Waikoloa, Hawaii.  The conference is sponsored by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (housed at the University of South Carolina) and is one of the best conferences I attend each year.
Two of the very best sessions I attended were presented by +Delsworth Harnish and his colleagues in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University.  The focus of the sessions was the "Inquiry 1" (1E106) course that is taught in the first year.  The course is a great example of the type of class experience that should be more prominent in the first-year experience, one that essentially "flips" the undergraduate experience by providing an experience that in most cases isn't provided to students until their third or fourth year.

Essentially, the course embraces a philosophy of "messiness" and "riskiness" (issues I've frequently commented on in past posts) by engaging students in an unstructured problem identification and problem solving process that, rather than focusing on content, emphasizes a set of six foundational skills (known as the 6 Ps at McMaster:  personal awareness, problem identification, problem solving, professional communication, peer collaboration, peer/personal evaluation).  It's a brilliant approach because it equips first-year students with the skills they'll need for the rest of their experience in the Faculty of Health Sciences, and it is the best orientation to academic life at a university that a students can get and extends across their entire first year.  

While the course is specific to a particular discipline (health science), it features a number of curricular best practices that could (and should) be applied across a diversity of courses, particularly in the first-year:

1.  Small Classes:  The sections of the 1E106 (Inquiry 1) course are capped at 20 students, which allows for the creation of a learning community where students know one another well, have plenty of interaction with the faculty "facilitator," and can easily access additional help or support if necessary.  Contrast this with the large lecture courses that first-year students are typically packed into on large campuses (and yes, McMaster is large -- about 25,000 students in total).

2.  Minimal Structure:  There is no formal "syllabus" when students walk into Inquiry 1 on the first day.  There are broad outcomes and a set of pedagogies that facilitators plan to draw upon to facilitate learning; however, the experience is driven by questions and wonderings of students.  This is effective for at least two reasons:  (1) students can take responsibility for their own learning and participate in self-directed process and (2) facilitators can be more responsive to individual and class needs without feeling anchored to a rigid syllabus that was developed years ago by a faculty committee, most of whom have since left the department. Additionally, the "messiness" of this course structure is what drives learning around the 6 Ps and allows students to acquire skill in problem identification/solving.

3.  Active, Collaborative, & Authentic Learning:  Students spend much of their experience in problem-based learning in small collaborative groups.  This structure increases engagement in the learning process, mirrors the type of working/learning they're likely to encounter once they leave the university, and builds inquiry skills much more effectively than independent work.  

4.  High amounts of support, balanced by high expectations.  Del and his colleagues expect a great deal of students.  The type of inquiry experience they are facilitating comes as a bit of a shock to first-year students and they struggle to navigate the ambiguity that comes with the course and to engage in the inquiry process.  But, McMaster can ask a lot of students because they have been very intentional about creating an inquiry space that makes it safe to fail by providing lots of support.  Each section of Inquiry 1 has 3 - 4 peer tutors who support and scaffold students' experience, there is no "high stakes" assessment to dissuade students from taking risks and being innovative, faculty facilitators meet with students individually to provide mentoring and support.

5.  Multiple opportunities for reflection.  Students are frequently provided with opportunities to reflect on their growth and learning.  This is important for any course, but particularly one like Inquiry 1, where the focus is on the development of broad skills, as opposed to content.  And, the reflection takes multiple forms, from written journals, to interviews with facilitators, to self and peer evaluations.

6.  A prolonged, authentic, and integrative capstone experience.  Too often courses are experienced by students as a fragmented journey through disconnected topics on a syllabus, only to end with a poorly designed final that surveys course content.  At McMaster, students have their sights set early on a final project in which they will need to demonstrate their learning across the broad course objectives.  However, the focus of the project (e.g. the question it addresses or explores) and the way students demonstrate their learning is left entirely up to them.  This brings a relevance and urgency to course activities and increases the likelihood that students will walk away being able to tell a coherent story about what they learned in the course.

Clearly, this is a great course.  Here's the rub--it's messy, risky, and students are likely to complain (at least early on).  Facilitators in the Faculty of Health Sciences never know how students will respond, what their projects will look like, or where they'll end up at the end of the experience.  That kind of thing makes most of us cringe because it feels like walking down a blind alley.  And, there's a chance things won't go well and we'll look bad.  What's more, because McMaster is asking students to do hard things, there is resistance and students don't always love the experience or have good things to say about it.  

But, if we're serious about learning, we'll have to be a lot messier, take a lot more risks, and be willing to put up with unhappy students.  The good news is that for institutions like McMaster who are willing to head down this path, the rewards are great.

If you're interested in learning more about McMaster's Inquiry 1 course, this 15 minute video is fun.

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