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Deep thinkers

Pilot projects encourage students to take charge of their own learning

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"Professors need to rethink how they deliver content with an eye toward doing so in ways that cultivate their students' desire to learn and their need to be better higher-order thinkers."

- Vice Provost for Academic Affairs David Silva

t’s OK for students to be wrong provided they learn from their mistakes by actively participating in the learning process. So goes the philosophy underlying the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) of the University’s Active Learning initiative.

Through the QEP, which recently concluded the first year of a three-year study, UT Arlington seeks to understand how students can benefit from an environment that invites them to be more engaged in the learning process. The goal is for students to more fully acquire the higher-order thinking skills—application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation—needed to understand the world around them.

Ten of the program’s 12 pilot projects began in fall 2007 when more than 1,700 students enrolled in a course section associated with the Active Learning initiative. Of those students, 800 participated in a one-session project co-sponsored by the UT Arlington Library and the English Department. The other 900-plus students enrolled in operations management, engineering, history, political science, math, biology, nursing and honors courses.

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs David Silva, who oversees Active Learning at UT Arlington, says the initiative involves taking calculated risks when it comes to teaching and learning:

“Professors need to rethink how they deliver content with an eye toward doing so in ways that cultivate their students’ desire to learn and their need to be better higher-order thinkers,” he says. “For their part, students need to be prepared to take charge of their own learning by actively listening, asking questions, wrestling with the hard concepts, sharing their ideas and adequately defending their points of view.”

History Associate Professor Stephanie Cole serves as a principal investigator for the project in her History 1311 classes. She taught one experimental section in the fall where students used remote control devices to answer questions. She also taught the same course without the devices.

“In the class with the remote control devices, attendance was higher by about 15 percent,” she said. “Moreover, students reported being more engaged throughout the class, a point that is corroborated by my own observations and those of evaluators who sat in on the classes.”

Dr. Cole said it’s hard to tell whether the students actually learned more because the use of the remote control devices was relatively slight, only five to eight questions per class.

Instruction and information literacy Librarian Gretchen Trkay taught the library’s Active Learning plagiarism session, Academic Integrity 101, which is a component of English 1301. Slightly higher assessment scores were achieved by these students for the three learning outcomes: identifies and summarizes the economic, legal and social standards for information use; identifies and considers the ethical context for information use; and identifies and assesses the consequences for unethical information use.

In Tim Henry’s Honors 4103 course, he incorporated a categorizing grid.

“This assessment tool reveals the student’s knowledge of the subject from assigned readings,” Dr. Henry explained. “But it also provides information on higher-order thinking by determining if students can discern the difference between fact-based and opinion-based statements.”

Mathematics Professor Tuncay Aktosun is the principal investigator for Math 4394, a course in undergraduate research experiences.

“I felt that at the end of the fall semester, students were able to see some of the benefits of the QEP,” he said. “I have no doubt that they will reap long-term benefits.”

One of those students, Antonio Lopez, praised the course’s hands-on approach and group activities.

“It helped me to think even harder and analyze things from a different perspective,” he said.

Dr. Silva attributes much of the project’s success to its planning, which was spearheaded by Victoria Farrar-Myers, the former QEP coordinator who was recently named dean of the Honors College (see story: 'Honors College dean named').

“As the project moves forward, I will continue to work with the principal investigators to adjust their individual pilot project protocols as necessary,” Silva said.

The pilot projects will continue for two more years.

— Jim Patterson

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