Prof. Stewart Lewis Ross is a senior consultant specialized in course design workshops at colleges and universities around the world. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Minnesota State Mankato (MSU), which began in fall 2002. He is currently affiliated to Dee Fink & Associates, which is a small company of experienced workshop leaders who have expertise in Integrated Course Design. The company leads workshops and online courses for college instructors on how to design courses that lead to increased student engagement and learning. An accomplished trombone player, Prof. Ross gave numerous recitals and played with various bands. He was at SQU, delivering workshops on “Creating significant learning experiences: an integrated approach to designing college courses”, organized by SQU’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and attended by over 170 faculty including the CETL Faculty Fellows.
The term “creating significant learning experiences”, itself alludes to certain problems associated with college teaching today. Could you explain?
Prof. Ross: If you take any professional, such as lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc., you will see that they are well trained in their respective profession and their knowledge about the subject is outstanding. When many of these people are asked to teach, we could find that many of them have very little knowledge about how to teach their respective subject. The majority of them have very little knowledge about teaching, the psychology of the students or student engagement, grading, conducting tests and/or how to help people learn. The reason is that, across the world, the societies do not ask faculty to do much work in this area. Many university teachers do not go beyond the “understand and memorize” type of learning. They do not think about aspects of learning such as: problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, ethics, and the future of society. This gives the impression that college teachers generally read a book in the class and throw things against the wall or the just present information. This makes the students engage in kind of “information dumping” of their own. Then students think of learning as memorization. Often teachers do not think beyond the traditional methods of lecturing and leading discussions in classrooms.
What are the negative consequences of this style of teaching?
Prof. Ross: Quite simple. The students are unhappy. They keep complaining about teachers. Sometimes, even the teachers are unhappy. The students are at different levels; the teacher does not know how to meet the learning needs of such a wide range of skills and knowledge. Therefore, teachers throw information “against the wall.” Then many students cannot make sense of the information, they do not see the reason for learning the information and ome fall asleep in the classrooms. They show apathy and do not really care. The teacher has failed to motivate the students. In addition, some students are only at the university because their mom and dad said they should be there. Whatever the underlying reason, far too many students do not see the big picture for their educations. Alarmingly, they take no reponsibility for their own learning.
Imprint: What should the teachers do to overcome these problems?
Prof. Ross: The teaching community should have knowledge in their discipline. That is required. At the same time, they should learn about themselves and other people. They should learn to enjoy their lives and also help their students enjoy their lives. When an employer hires a university graduate, they make sure that he or she is proficient in the discipline s/he studied at the university. The employers ensure that the person they hired is a personwho can get along with everybody, is able to work in teams,has confidence in himself or herself and, can do things. These are the important traits that a person should acquire while at the university. In order to produce such special people, the teaching methods and approaches have to be changed. A university graduate should be able to retain the information after a course is over and develop the ability to transfer his knowledge to novel situations. He should have thinking and problem solving skills along with motivation for lifelong learning and a willingness to change attitudes and perspectives; have an open curious mind.
What are the prerequisites for significant learning?
Prof. Ross: If the process of learning makes a lasting change in the life of a learner, we could say that significant learning has occurred. For learning to take place, there has to be some lasting change in the learner. Apart from foundational knowledge, application and integration, the “Taxonomy of Significant Learning” includes human dimension, caring and learning how to learn. When students learn something important about themselves or about others, they can interact and function more effectively. Significant learning experiences change the degree to which students care about something. When they care about something, they have more energy to learn about it and to make integrate the learning into their lives. Students can learn about the learning process during the course of their studies. They can learn to be better individuals whilelearning scientific methods; they can become self-directed learners while becoming experts in their disciplines. The most significant kind of learning experience is one in which students achieve all six kinds of significant learning. That is possible – if teachers learn how to design their courses with these goals in mind. Significant learning is the core concept or model of “integrated course design.”