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Introducing Change: Project Emphasizes Faculty Work in Teaching Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Published: June 27, 2012

Go to ACM Notes

"Is this going to be on the test?" When they ask that perennial question, students usually are focused on content – a body of knowledge – to be learned in a course.

Mastery of content is important, to be sure, but the hallmark of liberal arts education is learning how to learn, that is, achieving intellectual abilities that transcend specific knowledge. Those higher-order thinking skills – problem solving, critical thinking, abstract reasoning – enable students to become self-directed and mindful in their approaches to learning, preparing them for success in college and beyond.

How can faculty imbue the curriculum with higher-order learning from the very first day that new students begin their introductory classes? How can the work that faculty do to design courses, lessons, and assignments that encourage higher-order thinking be accomplished and sustained within the constraints of faculty workloads and scarce financial resources?

ACM, supported by a $150,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation, will explore these questions in Introducing Change: Introductory Courses and the Nature of Faculty Work, a two-year project in which teams of faculty will design and test models to enhance their students' higher-order learning in introductory courses, and will demonstrate the faculty-work structures needed to maintain those models.

"With Teagle's generous support, this new project will give ACM faculty resources to develop concrete examples of ways to increase student learning in those fundamental courses that get them started in their college careers," said ACM's incoming Senior Program Officer Elizabeth Ciner, who will lead the project during the coming year. "The project will then take a further step by asking faculty to identify factors which could impede the implementation of their projects."

"In fundamental ways, this project has grown out of the valuable work of the ACM-Teagle Collegium on Student Learning, led by ACM Vice President John Ottenhoff, who played a key role in designing this new project," said ACM President Christopher Welna. In the Collegium, funded by the Teagle Foundation, a group of faculty from across the ACM carried out classroom experiments in metacognition – helping students understand how to "learn how to learn."

The current project will take a similar approach to that taken by the Collegium, with the following key steps.

  • The ACM will issue a call for proposals from teams of ACM faculty to experiment with improvements to introductory courses and faculty work structures.
  • At a workshop in early 2013, the nine teams selected for the project will sharpen their research questions, build consistent methods among the teams, and foster communication with each other.
  • The teams will run "experiments" to test the success of innovations, gathering data to document and assess the impact of the changes introduced and to produce among them a set of related case studies that illustrate the costs and benefits of different ways to introduce change.
  • A final conference in 2014 will bring together participants from all of the ACM colleges to discuss and disseminate the set of results from the tests.
  • The consortium will work with colleagues from SERC, the Carleton-based active web archiving project, to capture and disseminate project content from the first steps to its conclusion.

This project is the result of a workshop and discussions supported by a $15,000 planning grant that the Teagle Foundation awarded to the ACM in 2011. Chief academic officers, associate deans, departmental chairs, and consortial staff worked together to shape the proposal for the current grant.

In the view of the academic leaders who proposed the project, there is particular value in focusing the effort on introductory courses. If the case studies can produce innovative approaches to these courses – such as through team-teaching or linked courses or through changes in attitudes and policies – the implications are likely to be felt throughout the curriculum on each campus.

As with the Collegium group, collaboration across the consortium will bring in a larger group of committed faculty than might be found at a single institution. By producing shared results, collaboration also will lower the costs to a single institution of improving the teaching excellence of its faculty.

The goal of the project is to find ways to reconfigure and reconceptualize faculty work to better enable pedagogical approaches that foster higher-order thinking. "If successful, this project can make a real difference in how we organize teaching and learning on our campuses, and can make the liberal arts college experience more effective," commented Ottenhoff. "Looking for new and innovative ways to structure faculty work and reward structures promises to bring great benefits – for students, faculty, and our colleges."

   

About the Teagle Foundation

 
        The Teagle Foundation provides leadership for liberal education, mobilizing the intellectual and financial resources that are necessary if today's students are to have access to a challenging and transformative liberal education.       The Foundation's commitment to such education includes its grantmaking to institutions of higher education across the country, its long-established scholarship program for the children of employees of ExxonMobil, and its work helping economically disadvantaged young people in New York City – where the Foundation is based – gain admission to college and succeed once there.  
    Visit the Teagle website for more information.    


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