Theory-Practice Learning focuses on real-world problem-solving

Through a teaching initiative that embraces the theoretical, practical and ethical aspects of learning with equal importance, Emory faculty have started teaching students to relate the classroom to the outside world and their own lives.

Called Theory-Practice Learning (TPL) or "learning by doing," the teaching method helps faculty create an environment in which they can increase the rigor and depth that must accompany the learning and application of abstract concepts and theories. A national movement toward TPL began 25 years ago; the movement toward its solid implementation in Emory College began as a 1995-96 faculty initiative developed by religion department faculty members Bobbi Patterson and Thee Smith with the support of College Dean David Bright and the Ethics Center.

"It's a very effective way to teach many types of courses in many different ways," Patterson said. "Students' motivation to learn is higher. It provides them with the ability to think synthetically with critical analysis and practical application."

The applications for TPL unfold in varied and creative ways; in philosophy professor Pam Hall's class, students keep weekly or bi-weekly journals of their own thoughts based on the course materials and supplemental movies watched in class. Students in sociology professor Robert Agnew's juvenile delinquency class may engage in LearnLink discussions, participate in "Educate the Professor" luncheons or write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or a political official on social problems. And religion professor Wendy Farley engages her ethics students in the application of classic texts by having them attend different worship services or go to a homeless shelter.

TPL focuses on a learning cycle with four components. Concrete experience allows students to engage course material through concrete activities; reflective or analytical observation outlines specific and structured exercises that teach students to consider and work with various types of data;

conceptualization or theory "challenges students to arduously consider the data in the light of theories being pursued through the academic objectives of the course," Patterson said; and active experimentation lets students take their insights to the next level by developing new hypotheses based on their theoretically comprehended knowledge.

"It seemed like a natural method for Emory because [the components of TPL] are in its mission statement," Patterson said, focusing on how TPL relates university learning to the external community. "`Choices and Responsibility' also focuses on Emory's mission toward social problems. At Emory, learning is a moral responsibility.

"It's pragmatic and practical," Patterson continued. "Students retain and understand knowledge much better. You use the theories you learn and make the leap back and forth ... you have to learn what it's like to learn in a real-world culture."

While the initiative has primarily been a grassroots faculty movement, the Center for Teaching and Learning in the College has begun offering workshops for teachers interested in TPL. According to Patterson, they are developing lists of placement partners in the external community who understand the academic applications of the program. Currently, a "broad spectrum pedagogy" is being used to develop a library about TPL across the country.

Many campuses--including Harvard, Stanford, Rutgers and Vanderbilt--are using the method heavily and with great success, according to Patterson. TPL at Harvard focuses on the specific social problem of schooling and children in the greater Boston community; one goal for the TPL initiative at Emory is to consider what local social issue the University may want to address as a whole, she said.

TPL courses are also connected to faculty research. "You're building trust with the community," Patterson said. "That doesn't take away from research." One other perk: "this is the way to do interdisciplinary work ... as soon as students get in a practical situation, they respond to what they are seeing and learning," Patterson said. "Social problems are multidisciplinary."

Early studies on TPL confirm faculty faith in the method: in a survey of 35,000 students at UCLA exposed to TPL, there was increased motivation for learning, higher contact with the faculty, better critical thinking and judgment and a higher sense of ethical understanding and social responsibility.

These studies seem to confirm the experiences of Emory faculty. "Almost anything where you ask students to do something besides read and listen and take notes that engages reality will work," said Farley, who originally thought the theory was interesting, but couldn't be applied to her class. Through site visits and the incorporation of service learning, she discovered it could.

While Patterson warns that TPL is not for every class, professors have brainstormed on ways the theory can be applied to individual courses with great success. Hall calls the theory "invigorating" and Patterson's approach to it "flexible and prudent." Her students "like it very much ... it tests and challenges them, and they understand it better. It gives them a chance to chew on it."

Agnew, who uses a series of activities through TPL that add up to an exam grade for students, found the technique useful for personal application in his class of 120 students. One of his exercises, the "Educate the Teacher" lunches, has proved useful. "I'm learning a lot," Agnew said. "I use what I learn to further my lectures."

For more information about TPL, contact Patterson at 727-2541.

--Danielle Service

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