Drawing students out of the comfort of their worldviews is a delicate task that involves constant and open communication in a safe and productive learning community. I begin small seminar courses (<30) by asking students to create a set of community agreements that lay the foundation for how they would like to communicate with each other. Allowing students to construct and refine their own guidelines for building community within the classroom (rather than to receive a set of ‘rules of conduct’) gives them a unique ownership over the maintenance of that space and accountability to each other and their shared norms and values.
This is part of a broader approach to shifting student’s conception of the classroom from one of taking on information to one of producing knowledge together. As an instructor, my task is to encourage students to think for themselves using the tools, guidance, and materials with which the course is constructed. In this, I encourage them to not seek answers from me but to construct new ways of knowing from their newly formed community.
To foster this, I engage heavily in active learning practices. I break up lectures every 15-20 minutes for think-pair-share sessions or other interactive discussion exercises. In larger classes, when whole-class discussions are difficult, students hold discussion in a ‘fishbowl’ – four students at a time are invited to have a public discussion about the readings and other materials. I build in student-led discussion and presentations. In lower division courses, students work in pairs to present main arguments and to lead a brief discussion once a week. In upper division courses, students work in pairs or small groups to facilitate a full class period’s discussion. Having to learn material well enough to lead discussion and field questions from their peers leads to closer reading and engagement with the material. In courses with exams, students work in small groups to produce possible exam essay questions that are then refined and collated by all course participants into 2-3 questions. This grants them ownership over their own learning and testing process. In classes with research papers, I build in workshops throughout the term, in which students work together to refine their research topics, their outlines, their literature reviews, and arguments. I also ask students to share their reading responses or précis and to read each other’s before class to lay a foundation for discussion.
Student assignments are crafted around experiential learning. Many of my courses have had a service-learning component that complements the course material. I use problem-solving exercises to move students into the application of the ideas we explore in class. I also ask students to bring in or submit relevant current event or popular culture pieces to share with the class and to engage in discussion. In drawing on the materials from outside of the academy, students learn to actively apply the theoretical and substantive material they are learning in the course to their own and others’ lives.