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Students as Producers: The Course Design Institute at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

Posted by on Wednesday, February 1, 2017 in News.

by Marianna Sharp, CFT Communications Intern

The CFT’s Course Design Institute (CDI) is a three-day program at the end of the spring semester (May 8-10, 2017) in which participants learn and apply strategies to design (or redesign) course plans and syllabi for the fall. The institute is centered on the idea of “Students as Producers,” an educational approach that encourages students to go beyond consuming information to become producers of knowledge. Throughout the institute participants enhance their understanding of how students learn and apply that understanding to the creation of assignments that foster deep learning. I spoke with several of the participants from the 2016 institute about their experience and how the institute informed their teaching practices last fall.

Expanding Methods of Assessment

Rebecca VanDiver, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art redesigned the syllabus for her African American Art survey course. She said that the CDI helped her to not feel “limited by… the typical test assessments” that traditionally measure student progress. “As someone who’s new to teaching I had been operating under the idea that there’s a certain type of assessments that we use in our history and those are tried and true and that’s what we should be doing,” she said. “For this particular class…the typical test assessments I’d been using previously weren’t actually getting at the type of understanding that I wanted my students to get. [That realization] was a key pivoting moment for me.”

In lieu of the traditional midterm and final exams, VanDiver reformatted her course plan to include several content checks spread more evenly throughout the semester. This structure “took a little bit of the pressure off of having two big tests” for students and, in addition to assessing comprehension of the course material they served as checkpoints for the final capstone project. This project, a museum acquisitions proposal, required students to actively engage with the material they had learned throughout the course. Encouraging students to produce this kind of meaningful, generative work builds a deeper understanding of the subject matter, and VanDiver noted that her students responded to it positively.

Gilbert Gonzales, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy, said that the CDI helped him to provide more varied opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge. Podcasts, for example, were “something [he] had never even thought about using” previously, but this fall, he replaced what would have been a 15-page paper with a 15-minute podcast. The students in his Introduction to Health Services course created Health Policy Radio with Gilbert Gonzales, a series of fourteen podcasts based on recent healthcare research articles that incorporated music, news clips and interviews with Vanderbilt professors.

“Some disciplines need [traditional essay assignments] but in health policy it just didn’t work for me, so CDI gave me other alternatives, other assignments to
use,” said Gonzales. “I loved listening to
every single second of these 15 minute podcasts, and listening to them carefully and in detail…My quiet students, the ones who are a little bit shy and don’t always talk a lot in class, they really shined in this assignment. This was a platform that let them really express their creativity while proving to me that they understood the material.”

Engaging in the Classroom

The CDI also helped professors new to teaching to develop strategies for engaging students in the classroom. Nancy Abbott, an adjunct professor in the Owen Graduate School of Management, previously worked as the Global Human
Resources Leader for GE Capital Real Estate and recently began teaching human capital strategy for Vanderbilt’s MBA program.

“I think it’s remarkable…that Vanderbilt is willing to invest in an adjunct professor who’s taught once,” she said. She had been working with the problem of how to translate “25 odd years of knowledge into a structure that so people could learn from [her].” She wanted to do “major surgery” on the course plan to reformat the structure, and found the CDI’s process of working backward from her goals for student takeaways to be very helpful.

Unlike most undergraduate classes, hers are three-hour blocks, and it can be challenging to maintain student engagement. One of the major changes that Abbott made in her course structure this semester was incorporating a rule of “1/3, 1/3, 1/3”—that is, splitting each class into three parts of lecture, discussion and activities.

“I’ve really tried to make sure that I was taking what we were talking about and then putting it into an active time where people could take it and apply it,” she said. This classwork was then used to help build toward a final paper on Amazon’s culture and HR practices. “A couple of the teams delivered very unique and exceptional work,” said Abbott. “I wouldn’t have gotten this quality of work if I’d stayed in the old construct.”

Gonzales also added new elements to his in-class activities. Prior to the CFT, he said, “I had no idea what a concept map was. I had never even heard of a concept map.” But he loved the idea and incorporated it as a way to get students thinking from the first day. “On day one; I said, here, draw healthcare in five minutes…[and] we’re going to do this on the last day of class too, to see how students’ perceptions and understandings of healthcare have evolved after the course.”

Peer Connections

Participants also enjoyed having the opportunity to connect with faculty peers while developing their teaching strategies. “What was nice about my cohort,” said VanDiver, “was I had chairs of the department, associate professors, assistant professors and postdocs, so we ran the gamut of the academic hierarchy. I think that it is a really great way to get back into contact with teaching pedagogies in a short, quick, easy to digest three-day period.”

Gonzales, too, felt that the discussions with other faculty during the program were valuable. “We’re in our offices doing research or doing email or grading papers, and then we move from here to the classroom and not see or hear or learn about what other faculty are doing outside of seminars. I now know what my peers are doing and I’m learning from my peers.” As a new professor, he said, “A lot of us come in to teaching positions and sometimes we just don’t have a lot of teaching experience…it’s intimidating, but CDI gave me a lot of resources to connect with my students.”

More information about the 2017 Course Design Institute, as well as the application to participate in the program, can be found here.

Image: Twitter (@GilbGonzales)

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