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Teaching secrets for a successful classroom

From the sage on the stage to the guide on the side


The Harvard-bred educational philosophy survived the decades. Even in the middle of this century, when the GI Bill of Rights made higher education affordable for the masses, it was likely that a professor in a four-year college would be a classically trained male in charge of downloading information into privileged young brains.

At the end of this millennium, though, Greek and Latin are considered slightly esoteric studies, applied sciences are more popular than pure mathematics and pedagogy has morphed from teacher centered to student centered. By the year 2020, Andersen Consulting predicts, 30million Americans will participate in some form of higher education -- almost a quantum leap in numbers from those original 12 Harvard students.

College students are no longer absorbers, but active learners and educational consumers. Teachers have become coaches, helping students find ways to learn what they need to know, using all the tools at their disposal, along with tricks they invent themselves.

According to experts of the Association of American Colleges and Universities: "The instructor's role as motivator remains fundamental, but now as a mentor in acquiring strategies for learning. As the familiar formulation puts it, the professor is no longer primarily 'the sage on the stage,' but assumes a new and crucial role 'as the guide on the side.'"

Mary Lou Basile
Mary Lou Basile, NTID professor of business (top),teaches a class how to design a corporate newsletter.

It might seem obvious, but everyone learns in a different way, says Mary Lou Basile, professor of business in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).

Teachers usually teach the way their teachers did, Basile says, which has helped perpetuate the old master/lecture model. "That style goes back to the Middle Ages," she says. "It doesn't always work today."

"Everything you do in the classroom has to support the goal of students learning the material," she says. "You can't just give the students busywork. You need to provide, in a 10-week session, opportunities for all of them to learn in the ways they like best."

According to Basile, some general learning styles include: competitive -- needs to be challenged to learn; collaborative -- prefers working with others; independent -- takes pleasure in learning the material; and dependent -- needs some structure to learn.

Basile tries to offer something for each style in her curriculum, she says. "I have games for the competitive, group projects for the collaborative, some lecture for the independent learners and plenty of structure for the students who are dependent learners," she says.

Technology has altered the face of the college classroom in the 20 years since Margaret Reek graduated from RIT (she earned her BS in computer science in 1977, her MS in 1981). A computer science professor, she came to RIT after a "real-world" career at Digital Equipment Corporation in Rochester.

"Computer power has changed so much since I graduated in 1977," Reek says. "Back then, we had one chance a day to get on the computer, and we had to make it work. Now all my freshmen have computers in their rooms, and they're not afraid of them. They have time to play around and get creative with their work."

Reek uses e-mail to "talk" with students ("E-mail makes me more accessible," she says) and plans student exercises that use World Wide Web technology. "I still need feedback from the students, though," she says. "I look at e-mail and the Web as ways to augment the educational experience, not necessarily to be its sum total."

Students want to be recognized in the classroom, Reek says. With a teaching load that can often hit 130 students a quarter, though, it takes work to remember who is who among the sea of baseball caps and backpacks. Reek has a trick: "I take their picture on the first day of class and get a little bit of bio information, and put it all on a class Web page. I know all their names," she says with a laugh. "I need to see a name with a face."

Keith Jenkins

Keith Jerkins

Keith Jenkins uses e-mail to stay in touch with his students, but he favors "proximal face-to-face contact." Jenkins, assistant provost for diversity and assistant professor of professional and technical communication, intended a career as an actor before being bitten by the teaching bug at Florida State University. He teaches effective speaking and intercultural communications courses at RIT. In the classroom, Jenkins uses the Name Game to remember who is who. "You choose an adjective that begins with the first letter of the person's first name," he says. "I want each student to be able to call each other by name."

Jenkins often collaborates to teach courses: for example, he "team teaches" an effective speaking course with David Neumann, also a professor of language, literature and communication. "The students love the differences in our teaching approaches," he says. "Dave and I can play off each others' strengths, which adds energy to the material."

Jenkins has what he calls "an arsenal" of teaching techniques. Along with outlining his lecture on a transparency or in Powerpoint for students to look at, he might try talking about current events and how they apply to the subject at hand. "I try to transfer their learning to a new context," he says. For example, in a study of intercultural relations, he might ask students to visit Susan B. Anthony's house or Frederick Douglass's grave site, or take a trip to the Strong Museum, to get some perspective on cultural issues.

Joshua Goldowitz & students
Joshua Goldowitz (second from left) gets his hands dirty alongside his students as they install a ground-water monitoring well.

Never one to put boundaries on the classroom, Joshua Goldowitz also sends his students outside the classroom. The assistant professor in the department of environmental management, also president of Hydro-Logic Corporation, has his students install and use ground water monitoring wells on the RIT campus. "The students learn about testing by doing it," he says. "Students love to talk about real-world examples, take actual difficult problems and figure out how to solve them."

Even while in the classroom, Goldowitz aims for a hands-on approach. To demonstrate the flow of rainwater run-off in a hydrology class, for example, he covered the entire class with a drop cloth, then showered the students with two high-volume water guns. "No one forgot that lesson," an observer remembered.

Whether it's water guns, name games, technology or whatever, teaching students at this time in history means making change. ". . . The world of higher education," say the experts of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, "has only recently reached a broadly shared understanding that it is in a transformational period."

As teachers move from the master/lecture model to whatever new pedagogy evolves, they need to remember what Mary Lou Basile considers her primary motivator: "My main goal is to make students more reliant on themselves," she says. "They need to learn that they are the makers of their own destinies."