Two Activities that Influence the Climate for Learning

My colleague Chuck Walker, a psychology professor at St. Bonaventure University (NY), shared a collection of instructional strategies that illustrate how the principles of positive psychology might be applied in the classroom. (For examples, see here.) I especially like this one.

“Ask students to write short autobiographies (200 – 300 words) on themselves as learners. Urge them to include reflections on great teachers, peers who supported them, accomplishments, and turning points or times when they showed resilience and grit. Take a couple days to read each autobiography and, with their permission, ask them to read each other’s autobiographies.”

Chuck recommends using this activity at the beginning of the course. I think it accomplishes two objectives well. It’s a unique way of letting students know that the instructor is interested in finding out something about them as learners. Perhaps the instructor could write his or her learning autobiography as well, and then post it on the course website, include it in the syllabus, or read it to students. If it’s a large class and there isn’t time to read 150 learning autobiographies, there is still time to read some of them. What several students may have written about great teachers and significant learning experiences could be mentioned (anonymously) when they are relevant to teaching and learning tasks during the course. Teachers could also give students the chance to meet several classmates by sharing portions of their autobiographies.

The second benefit I see accruing from the activity is the attention it directs toward learning right at the beginning of the course. I have written before how very unaware so many students are of themselves as learners. They can tell you about good teachers they’ve had, but they aren’t always clear what those teachers did that helped them learn, and they haven’t carefully considered the details of those successful learning experiences.

An article in the current issue of the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education describes an activity that also accomplishes this second goal. It was used in an instructional design and technology program where students objected to having to learn theory. They wanted to use technology to make products and had no interest in the theoretical underpinnings of what they were doing. Teachers helped students understand the value of theory by having them write a 250-400 word description of their best learning experience … “just tell the story” they are instructed. With written stories in hand, students then met in small groups to hear and analyze each other’s stories. “The goal of the analysis is to uncover a set of underlying instructional themes and attributes working behind the scenes of these learning experiences.” The lists generated by the groups provide a foundation for what happens in that course and subsequent ones. “When you design learning experiences for others, it is important to consider what you instructionally value as a learner and educator.” (p.270) Those themes and attributes provide an easy and obvious segue into theory.

This is another excellent way to raise learning issues with students. They could share their learning experiences in small groups and do the same searching for underlying themes and attributes, which they could then propose as learning principles. The teacher could assemble a collection of these and post them on the course website. The principles could be analyzed further in terms of how they relate to learning the content of this course. Do they need to be expanded or modified? Does the teaching in the course reflect these principles—a good question for students and teachers.

I’ve been on the lookout for activities like this since the recent post exploring some of the issues that emerge when students talk about their experiences. With these activities the talk starts with an individual experience but it grows from there into conversations that create pictures that encompass individual experience at the same time they enlarge it.

Always there’s the question of whether we have time to devote to activities that influence the climate for learning and that focus students’ attention on what we want them to do in the course—learn! For many of us the answer is another question: what are the costs if we don’t?

Reference: Dunlop, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2013). What was your best learning experience? Our story about using stories to solve instructional problems. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 25(2).

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