A New Approach to Teaching and Learning

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Timothy Randazzo, Ethnic Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

Last summer I made the decision to alter my approach to teaching radically, and the result was the highest level of analytical thinking and enthusiasm among my students that I have ever seen in my six years of teaching. This decision grew out of my frustration with the traditional learning model that treats students as empty vessels who listen attentively to their professor’s lecture and repeat what they’ve “learned” on their midterm and final exams. I had always supplemented this traditional model by encouraging discussion in class, posing questions to students during lectures, and designing exam questions to promote critical thinking. Despite my best efforts to promote independent and critical thinking, I found that my students’ approach to learning was still grounded in the traditional model: figure out what the instructor “wants” and repeat as much as you can remember on the exam.

After careful consideration and research into student learning, I realized that despite my well-intentioned efforts to adapt the lecture and exam format to promote active learning, this model was fundamentally incompatible with my simultaneous desire for students to think critically and independently. In designing my summer course on immigration, I decided upon three principles to guide my formulation of class activities and assignments: 1) there will be no lectures, 2) there will be no exams, and 3) whenever possible, student work will be reintegrated into the class, rather than being just “for the instructor.” These principles ultimately provided a framework that allowed me to develop truly interactive activities and assignments that enhanced student collaboration, enthusiasm, and learning.

For example, after students read an essay on theories of international migration, I introduced a skit activity in which students were asked to demonstrate, through their performances, the differences among the various theories. Each group of students was given a slip of paper with the name of their group’s assigned migration theory, along with a list of the theory’s key concepts. After each group performed its skit, the rest of the class was asked to guess the migration theory and explain their answer, with performers and audience members discussing the elements of each skit. I was amazed at the creativity and high level of thinking that the activity produced. One group, for example, brilliantly illustrated World System Theory’s explanation of migration by “acting out” the expansion of global capitalism, disruption of local economies, and creation of a migrant labor force; no lecture could have explained it better!

Instead of exams, analytical essays on the class readings formed the foundation of the course. On the due date of each essay, students would present their papers to each other, conference style, in small groups. Then, several days later, students would select another student’s essay and write a short “reaction paper” critiquing or building on the other student’s arguments. This format shifted attention away from me, the instructor, as the “consumer” of the students’ written work, and the students flourished as a result. Never before have I witnessed such provocative and lively classroom discussions, nor have I ever read such insightful and analytical student writing. One student, for instance, praised the author of the assigned text for creating linkages among multiple migration theories; another student speculated on how the author’s conclusions might have been altered if she had used different countries in her analysis.

For the first time in my six years of teaching, nearly every student in the class received a solid “A” in the course — but not because my grading standards had lowered. Rather, my students flourished under the new teaching methods. They enjoyed being in class and put forth maximum effort into their work. One student even told me that this was the most fun course he had ever taken at Berkeley. In the course evaluation, another student wrote, “I learned more in this class about immigration than [in] 2 years of history classes.” As I reflect on my summer teaching “experiment,” I am eager to continue to develop this new style of teaching in the future.