Let's not forget learning
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.
in the teaching process
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
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