CRLT Blog

4 people in a group talkingFaculty frequently name critical thinking as one of the most important goals for student learning. However, a key challenge to cultivating critical thinking can be the development of complex assessments. This can be especially difficult in large classes, when many tests and quizzes are in a multiple-choice format.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Dental Education, a team of U-M faculty from the School of Dentistry (Carlos Gonzalez-Cabezas and Margherita Fontana), School of Public Health (Olivia Anderson) and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (Mary Wright) investigated a new approach to mitigate these challenges. This student-centered approach to testing asks students to work in teams to design their own multiple-choice questions.

US flag in the DiagDuring U-M's Veterans Week, it's a good time to reflect on the needs of our students who have served in the military. Did you know that record numbers of veterans are enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities--and many of them are here on U-M's campuses? As a result of the university's new tuition policy which took effect in January 2014, allowing students who have served in the military to qualify for in-state tuition, our number of student veterans is expected to rise. If you teach at U-M, odds are good you've had or will have student veterans in your classroom.

How might your awareness of veterans in the classroom make a difference in your teaching? The research on student veterans suggests several strategies and cautions for teaching inclusively with veterans in mind. Here are a few:

6 people walking outside the Law Quad

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.