Let's not forget learning
in the teaching process

Having taught at institutions in this country and in Europe that were heavily research oriented, I certainly appreciate Emory's mission of finding a healthy balance between the academic enterprise and teaching. I like the idea of an ongoing conversation on teaching, fostered by Provost Billy Frye's Choices and Responsibility, the University Teaching Fund, the Committee on Teaching, the Center for Teaching and Curriculum, and many individual initiatives.

At the same time, I wonder why there isn't a similar effort focused on learning. To my knowledge, the above-mentioned committees, centers and grants are geared toward better teaching quality and teacher performance. Questions surrounding more effective learning or improving one's performance as a student (as raised in Bobbi Patterson's Theory and Practice Learning initiative) are implied, of course, but more as a result of teaching efforts than on their own merit. Learning is seen, as usual, from only one side of the desk, and those most affected are not asked about their needs.

But the fact that there aren't too many student voices on campus demanding loudly to be asked-or heard-about something they (or their parents) are paying for surprises me as well. Why not change the title of Emory Report's Conversations on Teaching column to Conversations on Learning and Teaching and invite a dialogue between Emory students and faculty?

I am saying this because I believe everyone needs to be personally involved in changes in order to benefit from them. We are all familiar with John Dewey's learning by doing, and most of us probably appreciate the truth of it almost daily. Unfortunately, I benefit from experiential learning mostly on a more unconscious level. I can only imagine, from the few incidents where I gave myself permission to actually try out certain thoughts and actions, how much more and on what deeper level I could gain insights.

Something else I've found out about myself: knowledge gained through active involvement in the process of discovering, unfolding and processing new information is of greater importance to me and, therefore, longer-lasting. This kind of learning touches me not only on a cognitive and rational level, but also on an intuitive and emotional level. I experience myself as a whole person.

It is important in my teaching that I motivate students to be lifelong learners. I encourage them to seek knowledge that is personally relevant, rather than reaching for outside expectations from teachers, society or parents. One way of doing this is to foster the students' own experiences-those already had and those yet to be. I try to provide fertile ground for individual students to experience what they want to learn. For me, learning is very much about finding out what each learner needs and wants for him or herself. Besides sharing my own experiences, I see it as my responsibility to facilitate my students' search for meaning in their own lives, rather than in handing out preconceived portions of knowledge.

Oral narrating, writing and drama are powerful tools for experiential learning. After having worked with students and teachers in Germany, the Czech Republic, Oregon and now here at Emory, I have just started to explore the multi-layered potential of those tools.

It seems to me that imitation, adaptation and improvisation are three more basic ways of learning. These tools can be used effectively in the classroom setting by holding peer conferences and workshops or by teaching writing techniques such as brainstorming and clustering. Autobiographical writing, in which the student explores the origins of his or her desire for personal growth, is as important as journal writing, which sheds light on the more current search for meaning in life. This kind of personal writing is powerful for both learner and facilitator because it reflects a complex quality of learning that needs to be recognized and discussed by both partners in order to enhance both the learning and facilitating processes.

I have talked with students about the function of more individualized frames for gaining knowledge that call for students to be active participants in a community of learners. Here is what Kourtney Kuss, an anthropology major, had to say: "I find that peer conferences and journals can be excellent modes of communication between student and teacher. These formats are very intimate and, provided that criticism is given compassionately, they create an environment that is so essential for ongoing learning. I think that the majority of students had this kind of constant learning in mind when they decided to attend a university. We students do, however, need help with kicking ourselves into intellectual action," she said. "I don't think that any teacher would doubt the potential for creativity in college students, nor in their capacity for knowledge. Maybe it would require the teachers living among students or holding class discussion sessions for extra credit (a powerful learning tool!) in order to start some of the random conversations that define a learning community."

For me, grading has always been crucial in helping to establish my relationship with a student. I am not interested in using grades as a power tool to make students work harder, nor am I interested in grading for checking banks of knowledge. By looking at my students' work, I am eager to find out about their process of gaining insight and their progress over a period of time by using a variety of different activities.

Therefore, I see papers, tests and exams as providing a very rough estimate of what the student might actually be able to accomplish. If personal growth is possible to measure at all with a letter-grade, then a portfolio, in which many different types of student efforts are compiled over time, can help to make grade assessment a more accurate representation of the actual learning-that is, the lifelong process-taking place.

Gerd Bräuer is an assistant professor in the Department of German Studies.

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