Equal Exchange

Faculty and students team up to level the academic playing field

Teaching class outdoors
By Kardelen Koldas ’15 and Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
August 27, 2020

Students learn from professors all the time. But in a new program designed by Colby’s Center for Teaching and Learning, the tables are turned.

The program, which pairs faculty with student assistants to implement active learning strategies in the classroom, teaches professors how to finesse their instruction through direct feedback from their student partners. And students, in turn, get an eye-opening look at the art and science of teaching.

Last spring it proved a win-win situation—especially when the pandemic made remote learning the norm.

The Teaching and Learning @ Colby Fellows Program, spearheaded by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), supports students and faculty through facilitated discussions and workshops with the goal of making learning more accessible and inclusive, said Carol Hurney, associate provost for faculty development and founding director of the CTL.

“What these students saw was that professors benefit from knowing what the students are struggling with,” Hurney said. The learning assistants (LAs) became a bridge, communicating about students’ issues that encouraged professors to adjust their approaches, eventually leading to better learning outcomes. “That’s the special sauce,” Hurney said, “that these students bring to the table.”

Inclusivity in the classroom, Hurney said, levels the learning playing field. By acknowledging learning differences, giving all students a voice, and teaching students to be active listeners, inclusivity provides all students an equal chance to succeed. It’s a hot topic among faculty, she said, especially as more diverse learners enroll at Colby.

Here’s how the program works: A professor, who applies for the program, is paired with a student LA who has previously taken the course or a similar one, preferably with that professor. They meet for weekly pedagogical planning sessions with CTL staff to discuss ways to create meaningful learning experiences in the classroom that week. The LA attends each class session and leads at least one of the activities. The pair regroups, has a facilitated exchange about successes and challenges, and prepares for the coming week.

When students and faculty work together, “magic happens. We’re trying to be that place where students can help enrich the ways that we think about teaching and learning.”

Carol Hurney, associate provost for faculty development
Audrey Brunetaux, associate professor of French
Audrey Brunetaux, associate professor of French, feels strongly that we learn best through collaboration, and through a partnership with her learning assistant in the Teaching and Learning @ Colby Fellows Program, she gained tools for interacting even more fully with the students in her classes.

Last spring 10 faculty and nine students from across the disciplines participated in the program. As the semester progressed, Hurney noticed that “student voices got more confident and more present” in the weekly conversations. They reported what worked, what didn’t—and why, insight they gained by forming relationships with their peers and learning to read the classroom.

In turn, the LAs gained an appreciation of how much time professors put into teaching and how hard it is taking pedagogical risks and trying something new in the classroom.

Like remote teaching.

However, when COVID-19 sent students home in March, faculty in this program fared better than many of their peers, Hurney said, because they had already done a deep dive into what good teaching looks like for each of these courses.

“We had prepared ourselves … because remote teaching isn’t just about the tools. It’s the timing. It’s thinking about how students learn. It’s trying to challenge them with the right activities at the right time.” This, coupled with reports from the LAs about how students were really doing at home, made these professors feel like they were walking on much more solid ground.

For students, an LA in their classroom meant an extra set of eyes and ears, a student mediator of sorts, said French studies major Sophie Cortese ’23. The LA in her French class could “understand the student’s point of view, and what it took in terms of language acquisition to be in the classroom environment, as well as the professor’s point of view in terms of expectations.”

Moving forward, this program will be key to the CTL’s growing emphasis on using students as pedagogical partners, said Hurney. Programs like this are rare at liberal arts colleges, but with a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the CTL has hired Taylor Methven ’20, an LA for a geochemistry course last year, as head LA to help expand the program and train LAs this academic year.

As the two case studies that follow illustrate, when students and faculty work together, “magic happens,” Hurney said. “We’re trying to be that place where students can help enrich the ways that we think about teaching and learning.”

A Collaboration, French Style

Associate Professor of French Audrey Brunetaux views teaching and learning in the same light: as community endeavors. Neither one, she believes, should take place in isolation. So last spring when the opportunity arose to participate in the Teaching and Learning @ Colby Fellows Program, she jumped at the chance.

She would be teaching French Theater Workshop, a 200-level, immersive course she was anxious to experiment with. Brunetaux wanted to work hand-in-hand with a student for input on the syllabus and to moderate class group activities.

The only catch? Her learning assistant needed fluency in French.

Enter Cassandra Winkelman ’21, a junior fresh from a semester in Dijon. A French studies and German studies double major with an interest in becoming a college language professor, Winkelman was equally eager to join the program. They fell into an easy working relationship, “and very early on,” Brunetaux said, “we found our mojo.”

That magic came partially from Brunetaux’s insistence that they collaborate fully. From weekly lesson planning to feedback sessions with the CTL staff to classroom activities, they were in lockstep the entire semester. “We were always on the same page,” Brunetaux said of Winkelman, who sensed the class dynamics and offered firsthand feedback. “It was very helpful to have another person in class with me, who witnessed the class and could bond accordingly.”

Winkelman, in turn, felt empowered to engage with the students. She led warm-up activities—practicing pronunciation, repeating phrases with different tones and emotions, conducting group movement exercises—and monitored small-group discussions. Since the class’s final project was to write and perform a piece of theater in French together, Winkelman’s work focused on team building and on expression.

Brunetaux deserves credit for helping Winkelman find her footing as a learning assistant. “Like an equal the whole time, which I thought was amazing.”

Cassandra Winkelman ’21

Finding the right student workload was another of Winkelman’s contributions. They discussed being overambitious and giving students too much work versus focusing on the quality of the work, Winkelman said. Brunetaux respected her opinion, and together they made frequent adjustments to the syllabus. Being communicative and flexible became invaluable when the pandemic and remote learning flipped the interactive course on its head.

Initially, technical challenges abounded. Goals shifted. Everyone felt overwhelmed. But soon Brunetaux and Winkelman found a plan involving small groups that worked very well. “We were able to notice their progression and that their pronunciation had strengthened as well,” Winkelman said. And knowing the importance of maintaining a sense of community, she checked in with students at each Zoom call: How are you doing? How is your family? This personal touch engendered trust and carried over into the academic realm.

“Students would say certain things to Cassandra but would never tell me,” said Brunetaux. “They would tell me that everything is okay, and then Cassandra would tell me, no, there’s actually an issue with this and that.”

In the end, the class pulled together to create a video of their French theater production. Each student had a voice and a role in a class they won’t soon forget.

Brunetaux deserves credit, Winkelman said, for helping to find her footing as a learning assistant. “Like an equal the whole time, which I thought was amazing.”

And that community aspect so important to Brunetaux’s pedagogy? She found that working with a student expanded her repertoire. “I grow as I go,” she said, “because I collaborate with people.”

Breaking the Monopoly

In an era when Google searches, YouTube lectures, or podcast series can deliver an abundance of knowledge, Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Nicholas Jacobs found himself in a moment of crisis.

What was the point of having him in the classroom? What were his goals?

Since the model in which Jacobs was trained, where the professor has a monopoly on information, is no longer effective, he saw the Teaching and Learning @ Colby Fellowship Program as “an opportunity to address some of the novelties and new situations that we, as a profession, are encountering.”

Last spring Jacobs teamed up with Learning Assistant Lukas Alexander ’22, a government and religious studies double major, to revamp the course Introduction to American Government and Politics—a prerequisite for all government majors.

Jacobs was proud of how he had traditionally taught the course as a set of debates, but Alexander wondered: What are students doing when they’re not debating? Are they engaged? These questions helped Jacobs to realize that debates weren’t really active for everybody—but they could be.

“We wanted to really get students to explore the world of political data, to really observe the political world as much as possible. When students are engaged in the work of producing new knowledge and in overcoming problems or in figuring out dilemmas, that’s where learning takes place. That’s what engagement means.”

Nicholas Jacobs, visiting assistant professor of government

He began to weave in time for students to engage in smaller discussions during debates or presentations. Later, when remote learning made online debates difficult, Jacobs created activities in lieu of those that would be useful when he’s back in the classroom. These exercises made debates better than what they were because, as Hurney pointed out, “he’s thought about all of the minds in the debate process, not just the ones that we’re doing the debate.”

Jacobs also approached his syllabus in a new way.

Instead of teaching a different aspect of how government works, he brainstormed problems, dilemmas, and controversies in American politics to explore with data. Students delved into real-world data like political scientists do, examining, for example, the likelihood of members of Congress voting with Trump or why people express a dislike for Congress yet vote the same people into the office every year.

“We wanted to really get students to explore the world of political data, to really observe the political world as much as possible,” Jacobs said. “When students are engaged in the work of producing new knowledge and in overcoming problems or in figuring out dilemmas, that’s where learning takes place. That’s what engagement means.”

Alexander, who took a first stab at the material, observed that his peers embraced their roles as political scientists and underwent a sort of transformation. Their mindset shifted into thinking about the material “in a new way—that you’re not studying government as like a history lesson,” he said. “These are the problems of today.”

These changes in approach helped Jacobs shift his perspective to see the benefits of getting everybody in the classroom engaged as often and as frequently as possible, he said. Changes that wouldn’t have happened if he planned the course by himself before the semester started.

Considering a career in academia, Alexander said the behind-the-scenes view of how to build a course added to his desire to pursue teaching as a career, despite the effort. “It takes so much work to stand in front of a class and run it, whether doing a lecture or running an activity. Not to mention all the work preparing for everything.”

As an LA, Alexander realized that by providing suggestions and critiques about the class, he could make a difference for current and future students. “Every week I would meet with the other learning assistants …, and it was just amazing to see us all grow and help our professors in our own unique ways.”

That kind of student feedback is crucial for professors, Jacobs argued.

“As scholars, we’re very used to criticism of our scholarship and criticizing others, and recognizing that it’s from that iterative process, that scholarship improves,” he said. “And the same thing can be said about teaching.”

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