Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Earth System Science & Policy Department, University of North Dakota
For more on this, be sure to check out the On Teaching Lunch Seminar directed by Rebecca Romsdahl and Patti Alleva on Wednesday April 28, 2010. Here’s the flier.
In graduate education, there is often a great divide between classroom learning and research endeavors. Many graduate degree programs emphasize the research enterprise above the classroom education resulting in a devaluing of the classroom experience for both instructors and students, e.g. graduate coursework is just a checklist to be completed in the shortest amount of time possible. In an effort to bridge this divide, a colleague and I have adapted strategies and values from the undergraduate learning community (LC) model, to develop a collaborative research project which links our two core courses, “Biosphere & Biodiversity,” and “Environment & Society.” Our primary goal is to build stronger and more meaningful ties between classroom learning and research so that our graduate students see them as complimentary learning rather than separate, unevenly valued components.
Our department, Earth System Science & Policy (ESSP) at the University of North Dakota, is a relatively new integrated graduate program, with a first cohort of graduate students in 2004. To facilitate a baseline understanding of ESSP concepts, students are required to take six sequential core courses during their first year (10 credits per semester); this structure is very similar to the coordinated studies programs within the LC model (Smith et al 2004).
The LC model, as described by Smith, et al. (2004), emphasizes five core-practices: community, diversity, integration, active learning, and reflective assessment. Each fall, the new cohort of students in the ESSP department develops a strong sense of community as they progress through the required core courses. The students and faculty bring with them a diverse mix of expertise, experience, previous degrees, nationalities, interests, and goals. The integration of these greatly contributes to the exchange of active learning between students, and between faculty and students; our collaborative research project is only one example of efforts to move beyond the lecture mode of “learning as a spectator sport.” At the graduate level of education, reflective assessment is often set aside until the student prepares to defend their thesis. Then they are frequently asked to consider questions such as ‘how would your current knowledge of variable x have potentially changed your analysis?’ or ‘what would you have done differently if you could redo the project now?’ The undergraduate LC model emphasizes that this reflective assessment should take place throughout the learning process.
To help bridge the gap, we strive to provide our graduate students with an opportunity to be teachers, learners, and researchers by studying a regional environmental topic in-depth and exploring it from different perspectives (Brower et al. 2007; Umbach and Wawrzynski 2005). A second objective is to help students build essential skills for their post-graduate school success, e.g team-work and research skills. To accomplish these goals, we utilize the following strategies and values, adapted from the undergraduate LC model (Bielaczyc and Collins 1999):
- cohort identity– students develop group cohesion through the required sequential courses and we emphasize team efforts and a supportive learning community;
- discourse learning– faculty and students take turns leading seminar discussions;
- in-depth understanding and complex problem solving– the collaboration needed for the research project provides a forum to help students build competency in these skills;
- individual and group work– we encourage students to improve in both these skills;
- collective knowledge– a collaborative project builds this by necessity;
- collaborative learning– everyone is a teacher, learner, and researcher in the project;
- public presentations of results– helps students build self-confidence in public speaking; and
- tangible products– help promote active learning and students realize the value of their work beyond a final grade.
The project progresses in three phases. In phase one, the team (student cohort plus the two faculty) develops the research question, writes a conference abstract, and determines who will research each component of the regional science of biodiversity conservation. In phase two, the team determines who will research each component of the policy/socioeconomic section of the project. In phase three, the team aggregates the collective background information and any relevant data to organize the conference poster or presentation. In each phase, the faculty provide guidance as the students conduct individual research papers and collaborate to form a consensus report and final public presentation on their findings (Hansen 2006). Whenever possible, assignments in both courses are oriented toward building collective knowledge for the project.
The students receive feedback throughout the process and are assessed at draft stages and final products for class credit. To help ensure accountability, students also assess each other’s individual efforts in the teamwork by an anonymous survey, which accounts for a small percentage of class credit. At the end of the semester, students provide feedback on their learning and on the benefits and challenges involved in the collaborative project through an anonymous survey. To finalize the tangible products, representative students present the project at a national conference and the team writes and submits a paper to a peer-review journal.
In summary, transferring strategies and values from the undergraduate LC model helps us provide our graduate students with opportunities to be teachers, learners, and researchers. Student feedback after two semesters includes praise, critique, and suggestions for improving the project, for example:
· “Preparing [the] poster at national level from the combined research of those two classes was the most rewarding outcome.”
· “When we developed the first set of topics for the biodiversity class, we were given the choice among 5 different topics. Some of those topics were difficult to tie to a policy topic, so when we developed policy topics, some people did something totally different and thus the group’s conclusions weren’t as cohesive.”
What we are finding through this collaborative research project is that coordinated, collaborative teaching, learning, and research can help bridge the great divide in graduate education. Our goal in this collaborative project is to continue to build stronger and more meaningful ties between graduate research and classroom learning so that students see these as complimentary learning rather than separate components of their graduate education. Although the LC model is tailored toward undergraduate liberal arts education, we believe our effort to adapt and transfer many of the values and strategies into the graduate classroom is proving successful and we will continue to refine our progress in future semesters.
Bielaczyc, K., and A. Collins. 1999. Learning Communities in Classrooms: A Reconceptualization of Educational Practice. In Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Volume II: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, edited by C. M. Reigeluth. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Brower, Aaron M., Christopher G. Carlson-Dakes, and Shihmei Shu Barger. 2007. A Learning Community Model of Graduate Student Professional Development for Teaching Excellence in Higher Education. In WISCAPE Working Paper Series: University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Hansen, R.S. 2006. Benefits and Problems with Student Teams: Suggestions for Improving Team Projects. Journal of Education for Business Sept/Oct.
Smith, Barbara L., Jean MacGregor, Roberta Matthews, and Faith Gabelnick. 2004. Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Umbach, P.D. , and M.R. Wawrzynski. 2005. Faculty Do Matter: The Role of College Faculty in Student Learning and Engagement. Research in Higher Education 46 (2).