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Teaching smarter

Adapted from an article published by the Office of the Vice President for Research

From Brief, September 28, 2005

Ken Myers is figuring out how to get his students at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, to engage in high-quality, collaborative learning during their summer internships. Myers is an associate professor of hotel, restaurant, and institutional management, and last year his students interned in positions from resort event management in Brainerd to a hotel front desk in Japan.

Myers's interests lie in studying how well students can identify peripheral information versus key facts and issues of a work situation, write a reflective analysis of what happened, and identify and analyze alternative responses for handling those work situations. He has designed a questionnaire the students use to identify on-the-job situations to analyze, divided the students into Web discussion groups, and developed a Web chat room so they can post their own analyses and respond to others' analyses.

This research is part of a large, interdisciplinary University project, "Innovative Teaching and Technology Strategies," funded by the Archibald Bush Foundation. Faculty members on all the U campuses are putting new teaching ideas to the test. What they learn will improve the quality of University students' learning for years to come and will be disseminated nationally.

"The goal of mentoring faculty to do their jobs well and also supporting the life of students and the quality of education delivered to students is totally aligned with the University's current strategic positioning process," says vice president for human resources Carol Carrier.

Carrier is one of three principal investigators for the grant along with Linda Jorn, director of the Digital Media Center, Office of Information Technology, and Joyce Weinsheimer, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Services, Office of Human Resources.

"We learned that we could be stronger where we...help faculty take an evidence-based approach to the changes in their teaching."

The University is in the first year of a three-year grant period. When it ends in 2007, the University will have enjoyed 12 consecutive years of Bush Foundation support that began in 1995 with a faculty development grant to establish a mentoring program for tenure-track faculty members. The 2001-04 grant related to innovative teaching and technology with a faculty development focus. The current project extends that work, encouraging faculty to apply what they are learning and to research whether it is making a difference.

Innovative Teaching And Technology Strategies

Learn more about the projects on the Crookston, Duluth, Morris, and Twin Cities campuses on the Center for Teaching and Learning Services Web site. Click on "Bush Innovative Teaching With Technology" on the left sidebar.

Designing innovative or new teaching and technology strategies means adding elements to a course that enhance teaching and learning and, if appropriate, integrating technology to do so. During the 2001-04 grant period, for example, Brian Buhr, an associate professor of applied economics, developed a new way to teach students about future trade markets. With a standard approach--having students write and submit analyses to him--Buhr was losing one of the main attributes of a trade market, in which each trader can see other traders' analyses and learn from or act upon that information. Buhr tried a new technology-enhanced learning approach. He asked the students to use a Web-based course management system to post their reports for general viewing and then to participate in an online simulated trade market process. In doing so, he experienced several improved outcomes in his classroom: the students engaged in more realistic trading behaviors, learned from each other, and improved the quality of their analyses.

"There are so many evolving technologies and new approaches to thinking about classroom learning and online learning," says Carrier. "Our goal [with the last project] was to strengthen faculty members' awareness levels and skill levels to be able to apply those new technologies or other forms of innovations to their teaching. That played out differently across our four different campuses."

For the current grant, each campus chose a particular theme and identified a coordinator to manage campus activities: Marilyn Grave, Crookston; Bilin Tsai, Duluth; Engin Sungur, Morris; and Melanie Brown, Twin Cities. Project participants on each campus meet on a regular basis throughout the year to collaborate and share information. The campus coordinators communicate with each other monthly through interactive television-mediated project meetings. Two members of an external evaluation team, which is analyzing all the data gathered during the project, are included in the intercampus meetings.

By taking an assessment approach throughout the project and finding out what does make a difference, many people will be interested in what University faculty members are learning.

The collaborative nature of the overall project is also reflected in the fact that many participants work as teams throughout the project period.

On the Morris campus, for example, a consulting team of faculty, staff, and students are mentoring selected faculty colleagues on the topic of accommodating diverse learning styles through course redesign.

On the Twin Cities campus, where the focus is enhancing learning in large-enrollment classrooms, each course redesign team is composed of a faculty member or teaching specialist, a graduate assistant, an undergraduate student who has either previously taken or is currently participating in the course undergoing redesign, and an undergraduate student who produces a technology-enhanced learning activity in cases where technology is used to enhance the learning environment.

The research aspect of the current project was a guiding principle for all four campuses, according to Jorn.

"One of the things we learned in the [previous] three years is that we could be stronger in taking a scholarly approach to course redesign where we introduce innovative teaching and technology strategies and help faculty take an evidence-based approach to the changes in their teaching," Jorn says.

In the first innovative teaching and technology strategies project, an estimated 254 faculty participants taught over 14,000 students during the three-year project period. A new group of faculty members is involved in the current project. It's clear that current and future University students will reap the rewards of the innovative teaching and technology strategies projects.

In addition, when the project ends, the four U campuses will jointly host a national conference to disseminate their findings.

"This topic of improving student learning in higher education is a big one right now," says Weinsheimer. "We don't have a great deal of evidence to support whether what we're trying is making any difference at all."

By taking an assessment approach throughout the project and finding out what does make a difference, she says, many people will be interested in what University of Minnesota faculty members are learning.

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