Engaged Teaching = Engaged Learning

Bob Mabbitt & Jan Worth-Nelson

Jan Worth-Nelson The role of director of UM-Flint’s Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching is not for everyone. It requires extensive experience on the frontlines of university-level teaching, as well as a forward-looking vision for what the future of university-level teaching will entail.

TCLT Director Jan Worth-Nelson has the ability to draw from years of teaching English to undergraduate students, typically creative writing courses. It is her writer’s creativity, in part, that enables her to imagine the knowledge, skills, and personal qualities future graduates will need to excell—regardless of discipline. Add patience, curiosity, tenacity, and deep understanding and love for this community, and one begins to see what a special perspective Jan Worth-Nelson brings to the task of making some of the best teaching professors anywhere even better.

Pillars editor Bob Mabbitt sat down with Worth-Nelson to discuss ways in which a longtime hallmark of instruction at UM-Flint can become even better, making our faculty, students, graduates, and community even stronger.

Q: So what is engaged learning and why is it important?

A: I want to start by using a quote from Randy Bass from Georgetown University. He’s a national guru of student learning who was here last February and opened his presentation by saying something that has just stuck with me. He said, “Our understanding of learning has expanded at a rate that has far outpaced our conceptions of teaching.” So, in other words, our understanding of learning has moved beyond the way that we think about our teaching. It’s just such a powerful concept and that’s a good way to begin a conversation about engaged learning.

As Terry Doyle up at Ferris State has been reminding us, what we’re learning is that the one who does the most work, learns the most. This is the reality of where we’re at right now. The national data coming in, all the national research, the neurological findings about how the human brain learns, all of this is coming together to tell us that there is a certain kind of learning that is really powerful, and one of the words we use for it is engaged. What that means is that the student is actively participating in his or her educational process. So this means that the notion of the teacher standing at the front of the room while a group of 30 or 50 students sits there passively in their chairs as being the way students get smart is no longer being supported by the evidence. So as an institution of higher education, we want to pay attention to the evidence and to try to shape our behavior around that. And so the term engagement is an umbrella term that refers to many different things that have to do with how students learn, but I think it gets a little confusing.

I have tended to take the broadest possible interpretation of it. But one way to kind of narrow it down, or to make it more specific, is to use the phrase “high-impact practices” (H.I.P.), and we’ve been bandying about that phrase on campus quite a bit. So that’s why we’re having a workshop on August 29th called Getting H.I.P.: Closing Institutional Gaps in Student Success. We’re bringing in a national expert named Jose Cruz from the Education Trust to talk about high-impact practices and why this matters in higher education.

Many of these are things that occur outside of the traditional classroom. We can redesign our courses so that they incorporate these elements, but the important message is that students are not saying, “I really learned a lot when I came to that class where I just sat there.” Rather, students are saying, “I learned the most when I was out there on my internship. I learned the most when I was studying abroad. I learned the most when I was involved in that community project.” So what Randy Bass asks us is what does it mean when students are saying they learned the most from things that did not happen in class but somewhere else? If we want to make this a place where students are really learning, then we have to enter into what Randy Bass is provocatively calling “the post-course era”. And by that he doesn’t mean that courses would just go away. But he means that we have to think about building an active learning component so students are actively engaged and taking responsibility for it. It takes a lot of planning by our teachers. We have to think about doing our work in new ways, and that’s what we’re trying to work on at the TCLT.

Jan Worth-Nelson
Q: Does the engaged learning that takes place here benefit from our location in downtown Flint, Michigan?

A: I’m glad you asked that question. I’m a long time Flint resident, not a native, but a person who’s spent virtually half of my life here now, which is a shock. And if you know my writing, you know that I’m quite obsessed with the whole subject and I’ve written about it a lot personally. I feel really strongly that Flint – because even today, you know, we’re in the national news again because of Claressa Shields – year after year after year, Flint has an uncanny ability to have significance at a national level. Many times, as we all know and mourn, for negative reasons. But this is a really important town in American history and in the national picture. We have been down way before everybody else got down. They followed us. Now we’re trying to hard-scrabble our way up. One would like to think that we’ve learned some lessons ahead of everybody else who’s trying to come back up. How does a town remake itself after tremendous collapse? You know, 570 arsons, having an emergency financial manager, having Michael Moore trash us time after time – although I have some affection for his work. How is it that a town like this could find our way into some better kind of condition?

What does this have to do with UM-Flint and active, engaged learning? Everything. Because a university is supposed to be a place that helps people learn how to change their lives, right? So, we are right here in the hotbed of where change can occur, where transformation can occur. We have a responsibility, it seems to me, to help our students figure out how to make some sense out of everything that has happened in this town. It should absolutely be a thrilling and effective laboratory for transformation – personal and community transformation. There are some good signs. There are many discouraging signs. And you know, it’s hard to keep the faith, but if there’s any place where this should be explored and understood, and hopefully remedied, it should be right here at UM-Flint. So we need to get better at it and we need to be happily and joyfully involved in anything that involves that type of effort. This is the place for engaged learning to take place. This is the place. This is the place.

Q: Is there concern that people may view engaged learning simply as volunteering, just something nice our students do for the community without much academic benefit in return?

A: This is not a trivial, superficial thing. This is my life. It’s the life of our 8,000 students. It’s the life of our faculty and staff. It’s not superficial. It’s not something you just pop in on, go in and do your little fun games and then pop back out. I mean this is our life and it has a tremendous significance on what’s happening to the families in this town who have children, what’s happening to the public schools, what’s happening to the health care of our residents. This is not a superficial thing, and I think it’s a diminishment to the significance of what we mean by active, by engagement. If we, and nothing against volunteering, but I just think if you think of volunteering as something you can just pop into cavalierly and then back out of, that’s entirely the wrong idea. We are all changed by what’s happening in this community. We are all changing this community. So it’s always going to be a reciprocal effect back and forth. I’m a former Peace Corps volunteer. I know that the Peace Corps has been accused of this same sort of cavalier colonialism—if you want to call it that—you know, we amble into these countries and then stay for a while and then we get to come home. But there’s no coming home from Flint. We are home. This is home. It’s always gonna be right there, right here, permeable, all the time. We are changed and changing simultaneously.

Q: What are some of the exciting or unique examples of high-impact practices for engaged learning currently taking place at UM-Flint?

Jan Worth-Nelson A: I made a list so that I would touch on the range of people who are doing some exciting work. And as I look at this list, I realize that almost every one of these people are junior faculty, and many have chosen to come and live here in this community, which is a real inspiration to me. So again, it’s about that reciprocity, the changing and being changed continually by our relationships with our world here.

One of them, whose work I’ve been touting quite a bit because it really touched me, is Elizabeth Collardey in the Social Work Department. She did a program this year where she put together what she called a ‘community change project.’ With help from the TCLT, we sponsored a Genesee County community collaborative luncheon where 40 of her students presented research that they had done in the community as part of their training. They were all senior-level social work students. So for one wonderful day, all these people from social service agencies throughout the community came to UM-Flint and discussed what’s going on various aspects of life in our community: what’s working, what’s not, what issues are emerging, all sorts of very important research and conversations about how to utilize it effectively.

Another example would be Elizabeth Kattner’s ‘Dance in the Schools’ project with Shelby Newport and Beth Wielinski from the Department of Theatre and Dance. Again with some TCLT funding, they put on performances here where fourth graders came in and got to see classical dance performed. Then they would get to meet the dancers and talk to them about it. That again was a marvelous experience. Some of these students had never seen anything like that. They didn’t know what to expect. It opened up a whole world for many of them.

Another example that I wanted to mention was Erica Britt. Dr. Erica Britt is a linguist in the English department and her project, one of the projects that she worked on with another linguist in English department, Kazuko Hiramatsu, had students working with the ‘Vehicle City Voices Database.’ Students were going out and interviewing community members looking at the way they spoke, and doing some transcriptions of language patterns and so on. That was a really marvelous thing. Very meaningful I think for the students and the community members too. And of course, this database is going to be available, these interviews are going to be available to be shared publicly.

Of course I have to mention Andrew Morton, who through his collective playwriting class, developed the verbatim theatre production Embers, about the string of arsons last summer. Community members were interviewed, and then their actual words were put together into a production. I thought it was really, really dramatic.

Mabbitt: I saw it at the Hispanic Technology Center. It was cool that they presented it out in the communities most affected by the fires.

Jan Worth-NelsonWorth-Nelson: Absolutely. I’ve got great respect for Andrew Morton and the work that he’s doing here. It’s galvanizing both for the community and the students. It’s provocative, too. Not everybody was happy with what they heard, but those were the voices of our community.

Let me see. I wanted to mention Greg Laurence and Amy Gresock in the School of Management. They have been doing some wonderful work. Amy Gresock’s students were meeting with local entrepreneurs and helping them produce plans of action for how to improve their businesses. The local entrepreneurs then received a package with some great ideas and new perspectives from the students, and the students learned a lot about that they couldn’t get from a book about what it takes to run a business in this community. It wasn’t that the students had all the answers, because the students here are beginners where some of these entrepreneurs are seasoned. So the give-and-take there was significant for everybody. I think it’s possible the students learned more and got more out of it than the entrepreneurs.

Mabbitt: Flint can be a tough place to be an entrepreneur. Those that are making it have a lot of valuable skills and knowledge to impart.

Worth-Nelson: That’s right. They know their stuff.

Greg Rybarczyk from Earth and Resource Science was another example I wanted to mention. His students did a survey of bike paths and bike access in the community. Then they ended up producing a document which has actually become a guide for some policy considerations on campus and locally.

So there’s a whole bunch of different examples of faculty really embracing this idea and trying new things. Those are just a few examples.

Q: What is your biggest short term goal for engaged learning on the UM-Flint’s campus?

Jan Worth-NelsonA: I’m trying to be modest and realistic about short term goals. We’re opening up our Catalyst Course Design Project this year to all faculty. This is the third year of the project. The first two years were just for new faculty coming in, and we had a group of 15 each of the two years. This year we’ve decided not to have new faculty participate because we felt there were great possibilities for retooling and refreshing the way existing courses are taught. It was time to offer it to continuing faculty. Also, first year faculty have a lot of pressures on them already, so we felt like asking them to innovate in their first year was asking a bit too much. So this year I’m hoping that I’ll get a robust enrollment of volunteers for this project.

I really want to acknowledge the role of the Provost’s Office in this effort. Provost Voland took a chance on my idea for the Catalyst Course Design Project the first fall that he was here, and has supported us all the way. Basically, faculty are invited in to pick one course for their winter semester and redesign their syllabus. They get a fund to use for active learning strategies within the course, so some of the projects that I talked about earlier were actually Catalyst Course Design Projects. They get an additional stipend for professional development and pedagogical training. And then they write a final report on their experiences. So we’re asking faculty to think through the whole design of their course, incorporate some clear learning outcomes, think of a way to measure those learning outcomes, and then to build in activities that carry through the best pedagogy that we know of right now in their areas. I would love to see a growing cadre of people here who are willing to take the chances of trying new things in the classroom – and outside the classroom. It’s challenging. It’s very challenging because it’s not the way that we were all taught. It’s not the way that we’ve been comfortable, but we need to change. We really do need to change.

Q: How about longer term goals for engaged learning at UM-Flint?

A: It would be nice if the notion of high impact practices was just taken for granted. It would be nice if it was just second nature here, if every class at UM-Flint incorporated some of these elements in the way that material is delivered. It’s what we owe our students. That’s the world they’re going into. There’s a lot at stake. So my pie-in-the-sky goal would be that almost every class here would have some high impact, engaged learning elements to it. And that doesn’t mean that if you teach a math course you’re automatically going to be transforming the whole curriculum so that your students are outside instead ofin the class. But what it does mean is that the teachers would understand that students have to be actively engaged to learn, right? Incidentally, the faculty in our Education Department are some of the ones that really have been getting that. Matt Wyneken, who teaches future math teachers, is fantastic. I sat in on one of his classes just this summer, and I was so impressed by what he’s doing with his students. They’re really into it. So that’s one of my pie-in-the-sky ideas.

The other part would be that on the institutional level, we would really be rewarding teaching, that we would be rewarding people who are incorporating these practices. This is a bit controversial because the traditional University of Michigan structure is one in which, for many good reasons historically, publication, if you’re tenure track, is what counts when you go up for tenure. I understand that and I think scholarship is part of what we should celebrate here. But I often worry that good and innovative and even risk-taking teaching, which can be messy, isn’t always valued to the same degree. I feel like we need to be finding ways to reward and support that. So, I’m not sure what all the answers are, but I’m hopeful.


Annual Pre-Convocation Workshop | Getting H.I.P.: Closing Institutional Gaps in Student Success

Featuring Jose Cruz, Vice President for Higher Education Policy and Practice at The Education Trust

Download the powerful powerpoint Jose Cruz presented at UM-Flint from the Education Trust website.

Other Upcoming Thompson Center for Learning & Teaching Events:

“What the Best College Teachers Expect of Their Students”
Tuesday, September 18, 12:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m., Tuscola Rooms, William S. White Building
(Part of the 2012 Cloth Bag Discussion Series)

Ken Bain's 'What the Best College Teachers Do' “What Do The Best College Teachers Do?” Featuring Ken Bain
October 4 & 5, 2012 | A Quad-POD Consortium (UM-Flint, Baker, Mott & Kettering) Special Event
Learn more & register today!

“How the Best College Teachers Conduct Class: The Process-Pedagogy Connection and a Ken Bain Critique”
Wednesday, October 10, 11:30 a.m. – 12:45 p.m., Tuscola Rooms, William S. White Building
(Part of the 2012 Cloth Bag Discussion Series)

“What the Best College Teachers Understand About Writing”
Tuesday, October 30, 12:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m., Ontario Room, University Center
(Part of the 2012 Cloth Bag Discussion Series)

“How the Best College Teachers Engage Diversity in the Classroom”
Wednesday, November 14, 11:30 a.m. – 12:45 p.m., Ontario Room, University Center
(Part of the 2012 Cloth Bag Discussion Series)