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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Holding Class Outside

Posted by on Friday, April 5, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P.,

Around this time of my year students routinely beg ask to have class outside.  Every year I have an internal debate about this.  I would love to take advantage of the nice weather.  However, being outside also means being distracted, both by nature and passing students.  Each semester I end up nixing the idea of meeting outside because I know that it means that that particular class session will likely accomplish little to nothing.   Is there a way to have class outside without wasting a whole class period?

Window Gazer


Dear Window-Gazer:

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the squirrels are scavenging, the tulips are blooming… it’s a great time to be outside on our lovely campus – I think about the sunshine a lot especially in class or as I sit inside at my desk and write this. In the past, Professor P too has said a straight forward NO in response to student requests to have class outside. But I’ve been rethinking this lately as I continue to incorporate new ways of introducing ideas to students in meaningful ways.   Allergies and grass stains aside; there are some great benefits to taking your class outside.   Let’s consider a few:

Being outdoors can put course concepts in a new context. Rather than simply making it a change in venue, you could actually enhance student learning for particular topics by placing them in a new context.  In a society where people have less and less interaction with nature, many of students are unfamiliar with or have little knowledge of the natural world.  Yet discussions of the natural world pervade history, philosophy, literature, sciences, etc.   College campuses are wonderful venues for this exercise.  The wide-open and well-maintained lawns, flower beds and trees can offer a peaceful and intentional connection with nature that many students often lack or frequently overlook.

Use nature to discuss “big ideas” in your course. For instance, holding class outside could be a way to address changing notions of the value of land and its ownership, humanity’s place in the cosmos. Having these discussions outdoors rather than in a classroom would encourage students to interact with nature itself, articulate and analyze their individual perceptions and views of nature, as well as provide the forum for concretely showing them how the nature held and continues to hold meaning in our society and continues to influences daily life, public policy, the production of literature, etc.

English professor Jeong-Oh Kim teaches his Introduction to Poetry class as students enjoy the Spring like weather on Library Lawn.(John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Use nature to emphasize course readings or concepts. This would be a great way to discuss an artist’s use of nature for an analogy or the biological similarities and differences between particular species.  A creative writing class could “free write” for half the period either on one’s own or in groups; give the students a particular (perhaps unexpected or unusual) task to do and write about people’s reactions.  You could also discus architecture as a “map” of history or have a conversation about how we as a society allocate space to reflect our values.

Instead of letting “the outdoors” be the distraction, perhaps our true distraction is our own notions of what a classroom can and should be.  If we can redefine our notions of “classroom,” we can find new pedagogical tools to meet students where they’re at and encourage active learning.

Have I convinced you yet? Perhaps. So as you plan this out-of-classroom experience, you might want to keep a few things in mind:

  1. As the winter ends, 70 degrees feels warm… until you’re sitting on cold (and perhaps damp) grass.   Make sure the temperature is conducive to an unplanned trip outside and/or inform your students in advance so they can dress accordingly.  You might consider planning a course session that can be inserted or moved around in the schedule so that you do not have to rely upon on Mother Nature cooperating with your syllabus.
  2. As tempting as it may be to picture the students gathered around your feet, avidly listening to your words of wisdom while a halo of sunlight christens the scene, resist the urge.  Do not merely lecture at them.  You can certainly instruct them, but do so in a way that encourages engagement with the surrounding nature. That is the point of this session, right?
  3. If you plan to have much communication either between yourself and the students or amongst the students, try to find a spot that does not lie on a major thoroughfare or you likely will be overrun and/or interrupted by passers-by.    Group activities/discussions will likely work better than whole class discussions/lectures, especially if it’s noisy or windy.  You can have the groups interact with one another, but will likely find it difficult to address the class as whole.
  4. Just as you would with any other class session, identify the primary objects for the day.  What main point(s) do I want the students to take away from today’s class? How do these goals relate to the broader course goals? What tools/techniques will most effectively help us accomplish those goals?
  5. Be sure to include activities that will keep them engaged with the topic at hand.  In a typical lecture, even the best students will lose focus after 15-20 minutes.  This will likely be compounded while outside.  That means that you need to think carefully about the types and number of activities you use.
  6. Have fun!  Making class fun is a great way to engage students with the course material.  If they can learn the material and see its connection to their other courses and/or other interests, not only will they participate more in your class, they’re more likely to retain the information long after the semester has ended.

I encourage you to think about how you can make “going outside” not merely a change in venue, but a way to encourage your class to actively engage with course content in a new and meaningful way.

Check out the CFT Website for more great ideas on out-of-classroom learning:

See you in the great outdoors!

Professor P.

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