CRLT Blog

In a recent Educause Review article, John Seely Brown and Richard Adler write that becoming a master in a field involves a process of both “learning about” a subject and “learning to be” a practitioner of that field. Typically, in the early years of a curriculum, students spend a lot of time mastering content, but the important work of “learning to be”–or practicing the methods of the discipline–is left until the end. When we save experiential elements such as internships or research until the final stages of a curriculum, we miss an important opportunity to engage students early with some of the most complex and compelling aspects of our discipline.

How might we flip curricula in order to create more front-loaded experiences that engage students in “learning to be” earlier in their course of study? The U-M Law School offers one example. In a traditional law school curriculum, first-year students’ schedules are largely filled with doctrinal courses, which inform students about case law precedents in fields like contracts and criminal law. Only in the second year at the earliest do students usually engage in simulations, applied exercises, and clinics, where they represent real clients and practice lawyering skills in an applied setting.

Last year the U-M Law School engaged in an experiment to reverse this sequence of learning experiences. They now engage second-term, first-year students (1Ls) in activities that allow them to start practicing and thinking like a lawyer earlier.  The Unemployment Insurance Clinic (UIC), directed by Steve Gray, provides an opportunity for 1Ls to work with real clients on administrative law cases. Second- and third-year students (2Ls and 3Ls) serve as mentors, to supplement Gray’s supervision of their work. Students work with clients, puzzle together through litigation strategy, and take the lead in administrative hearings.

The research is clear that peer cooperation promotes learning and can foster students' appreciation of diverse perspectives. But how to get students on board to realize the full benefits of working with their peers?

In other blog posts, CRLT has featured some effective strategies for structuring group work and guiding student pairs. Here, we highlight one U-M instructor who is applying those strategies to foster group work that has won high praise from her students and, by their account, facilitated their success with the most challenging aspects of the course.

Cynthia (Cindee) Giffen, who teaches Biology 171 in the Comprehensive Studies Program, assigns her students to in-class working groups that change several times a semester. The class includes students with a diverse range of background preparation, and the groups are designed to provide a safe space for students to work through complex activities, ask questions, and make mistakes in a low-risk environment as they prepare for individual assessments. Giffen requires students to work on complex tasks in groups during class. Students receive a participation grade for their engagement in the group activities, but all written work they submit for a grade is completed individually, using their own words. Students are motivated to work in these groups, then, in part because these low-stakes interactions prepare them to submit their best work when it's time to earn a grade.

Registration is now open for CRLT's fall seminar series on teaching and learning. These programs offer U-M instructors opportunities to gain new perspectives on teaching at Michigan, share ideas across disciplines, and improve teaching skills. 

This semester, our offerings include workshops for both faculty and graduate students on key skills like leading discussions and writing exams. To help U-M instructors make a smooth transition to using the Canvas learning management system, we are also offering sessions on teaching with Canvas for both faculty and GSIs. And as always, our seminar series features sessions on topics related to diversity and inclusive teaching. This fall, these include a faculty panel entitled "How Do We Teach About Privilege?"; a four-session seminar for graduate students and postdocs on Diversity and Inclusive Teaching (co-facilitated by CRLT and IGR); and a workshop exploring the intersection of technology and accessibility. Full details about these programs and more can be found on our Upcoming Events list.

Classroom instructor with students using laptops.As U-M instructors put the finishing touches on their fall syllabi, many are pondering technology policies for their courses. Instructors across all disciplines at Michigan have developed creative ways to utilize technologies to facilitate student learning. As many U-M faculty examples demonstrate, laptops and mobile electronic devices can be leveraged in the classroom to enhance student interaction, collaboration, content knowledge, and practice with key skills. 

Yet many teachers find the presence of such devices a hindrance to student learning in their classes and seek ways to limit their classroom use. Recent writings about this concern have cited the distraction of the student user, the distraction of their fellow students (with one faculty commentator comparing classroom laptop use to second-hand smoke), or the sometimes-alarming uses of social media among groups of students during class. Many faculty are also persuaded to limit laptops in the classroom by research on the benefits of notetaking by hand for those students who are able. Considering these concerns alongside the development of ever-better instructional technologies, what's the best technology policy to adopt?

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and the choices you make will depend on any number of factors including your discipline, class size, pedagogical strategies, and learning goals for students. Any instructor effectively has three choices, considerations about each of which we outline below: