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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Osmotic learning?

I have completed the experiment with my junior-level engineering course. It was a project-based course ("canned" project, invented by my teaching partner and me) that constituted 50% of the students' course load this quarter. We did not lecture at all, but loaded all the foundational content onto MOODLE. I implemented a series of self-quizzes that they could complete on their own. They had 3 chances to pass the quizzes without penalty. We told the students that the material supported their project learning, and gave them the entire quarter to complete it. There was a GREAT deal of autonomy in the course; students were largely allowed to manage themselves each class period after about 15-20 minutes of checking-in and managing logistics. My colleague and I presented ourselves as coaches to the work.

This is what I found: I was able to monitor students' access to the material. They were quite active on the quizzes during the first 3-4 weeks of the quarter, after which their attention naturally shifted to their team projects. It made me nervous that students were not (apparently) mastering the content, but I could see that they were engaged in the projects more significantly than we faculty have ever witnessed (my colleagues has 5 years of teaching this course...this is my second).  The projects also illustrated a creativity that we have not seen before--in previous years, most students defaulted to some kind of mechanical test.  This year, students did things like create a scaled up,  rapid-prototyped model of a cochlea with a simulated cochlear implant surgery.

 I was nervous that I had no indicators of individual learning (test scores).  I noticed my tendency to want to say this aloud to this class of 50+ students. But I refrained because I could see that I was managing to my own fear of something insufficient about their learning or my teaching. Every 2 weeks or so, I gave them some statistics on the quiz completion rates just to feed back information--there was no pressure to do anything different, only information about the status of the class's investment in the quizzes.

By the end of the quarter, all students completed the individual "quizzes" with a 84-100% "correct." The projects that were completed reflected group effort, so I cannot speak to individual contributions. (Again, I am nervous about this, because I somehow feel that my job as a faculty member is something about "quality assurance" of student learning--I need to think about this).

With the exception of 1 in 12, the projects represented a depth of integration of science, math, social factors that I have never seen before in junior-level students. I was truly amazed and could see that students had integrated some of the foundational knowledge that they "gained" through the quizzes. I would like to conclude that there is something about the way we did the course that contributed to their apparent learning success. It may be simply that we have a very unusual batch of students. I can't deny that as freshmen, they showed signs of greatness.

My comment about osmosis...I do worry about the quiet students, the about 20 students who so silently worked...what did they learn?  Can learning happen by osmosis?  Does it really matter? In the project-based learning that I have been doing (sometimes badly) in the past 8 years, this is my persistent question...are individuals learning what they need to learn?