Building a Better Classroom
Stories by Lucas Fahrer
Photos by Andrew Mattson
If there’s a cornerstone to a Doane education, it’s this: opportunity always knocks.
Students have access, inside and outside of the classroom, to find their calling and ways to chase it. An education predicated on small-classroom learning leads to countless possibilities—if it stays relevant.
The faculty knows it too has a calling: to craft an even better college education.
Students need to be engaged. Current data suggests it.
When faculty members reach them—when students become an active participant in their own education—the outcomes that arise transform.
And now is the time. Faculty and staff are responding to changes in higher education by making their own changes to keep Doane in its special niche.
This is how Doane is building a better classroom.
Quality over quantity
With a new sequence of Liberal Arts Seminars, Doane’s overhauled general education program helps students get the most out of every class.
If students looked hard enough in The Doane Plan, they could find or forge connections between their general education classes and the studies in their discipline.
But it wasn’t explicit.
The college’s previous required gen ed curriculum was a series of checkboxes: A class here. A class there. At the end of it all, there were links—if students looked for them.
Sort of like trusting a college student to go through a buffet line; they can pick and choose what they want, but it’s on them to make a cohesive meal out of it.
“The Doane Plan was what people referred to as a ‘cafeteria model,’” says Dr. Kate Marley, Doane’s associate vice president for Academic Affairs and a professor of biology. “You take your tray, you go along, you grab one item from each section. A lot of schools have those but, again, there’s not a lot of coherence to all those courses. We talk about that being important so the students get a breadth of experience, but if you eat your pudding and your Salisbury steak, are you thinking about how they support each other?”
The analogy works because the proof is in the pudding: as college costs have risen, higher education has faced backlash if its return is worth students’ investment.
Doane’s revision to its gen ed program offers a resounding “yes.”
Starting under the leadership of previous academic dean Dr. Maureen Franklin and continuing with current Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. John Burney, Doane scrapped The Doane Plan and replaced it with Doane Core Connections, a smarter and sleeker system that reduces the required gen ed credits from about 60 to 33. What was lost in quantity was made up for in quality; the courses under DCC were intentionally designed to build skills that can be used across all disciplines.
“Those ideas are really at the heart of what’s going on, and John has certainly recognized that and fostered, I think, even greater acceptance and helped people realize the critical nature of moving our gen ed and ultimately the Doane experience as a whole for students in that direction,” says Dr. Linda Kalbach, associate professor of education. “And that’s not a small thing.”
Students are now required to take seven three- or four-credit classes in the Foundational Areas of Knowledge (Community and Identity; Mathematical Reasoning; Rhetorical Communication; Global and Cultural Contexts; Scientific Perspectives; Human Creativity; In Search of Meaning and Values); three credits worth of Experiential Studies like an internship, research experience, study abroad or student teaching; and the new three-course sequence of Liberal Arts Seminars.
Previously, the Liberal Arts Seminar—known to alumni and current students as “LAR”—was a 100-level class functioning primarily as an introduction to college coursework. In its first form, it was a one-credit offering, but for the last 10 years, LAR 101 took the shape of a three-credit class with a shared experience for all first-year students, often through a common book, speaker, theme or some combination of them. While the different LARs each had their own subject, faculty members found ways to tie in ideas from each cohort’s shared content.
But after attending an American Association of Colleges and Universities conference a few years ago, Dr. Marley and fellow faculty members heard of a “vertical sequence of seminars” where students could learn concepts that weren’t discipline-specific and develop writing and critical thinking skills essential to a liberal arts education. The series of these seminars would introduce and give students a space to practice those skills with increasing independence as they mature through college.
“We thought that was amazing, and came back and began to develop a proposal,” she says.
The new three-tier sequence began with the revised LAR 101, rolled out in the 2014-15 academic year. It shifted the focus to the “Art of Inquiry,” getting first-year students engaged in college-level reading, writing and discussion plus collecting data for students’ strengths and weaknesses in an information literacy test and emotional intelligence inventory.
Those types of reflection assignments are built-in at each level of the new LAR to chart students’ development, part of Doane’s Academic Affairs and faculty’s response to the college value argument.
“I think they’re responding to a need to document progress,” says Dr. Mark Orsag, associate professor of history. “Higher education is being asked more and more—in light of college costs and other things—to do that. They’re responding to that with the seminars which are also supposed to have a more flexible interdisciplinary component. They’re using that to try to, in some sense, demonstrate progress essentially.”
Benefits for interdisciplinary learning shine through in the new 200- and 300-level LARs.
Dr. Orsag is one of the faculty members teaching the first wave of new LAR 202 courses—his is about Vietnam and the 1960s—at Doane. The 200-level seminar, taken during each student’s sophomore year, focus on diversity and democracy, getting students to elevate cognitive skills.
“We’re trying to develop some intellectual skills, some analytical reasoning skills to try to document the progress over time,” he says. “All of these are supposed to work as a sort of chain, where from each step you’re gaining levels of progression.”
Dr. Kalbach, the coordinator of the LAR 202s, is teaching her own—“The Human Rights Journey: From Awareness to Impact”—using Theatre of the Oppressed pedagogy. She’s expanding her course off of an LAR 101 she co-taught about ethical philosophy, and will have her students explore human rights dilemmas through different content before using theatre as an analysis of the issues.
Classes taught during the old on-campus interterm—interesting topics without discipline-specific relevance—have found their way into the new LAR sequence. Dr. Marley’s own LAR 101—which explores the history, biology and sociology of AIDS and HIV—was borrowed from an old interterm course and gives her the necessary time to fully explore its content.
“These are spaces where faculty can lay out an idea that they have and help students grapple with it. I know it creates a space where faculty can bring that kind of interterm content,” Dr. Marley says of the new seminars. “Students are still able to take those really creative, interesting classes but in a different setting.”
The sequence ends with LAR 303, the final required seminar which students can take in their junior or senior year. While only in its pilot phase now, the full implementation of these 300-level seminars will help students practice what they’ve learned through teamwork, problem-solving coursework and experiential/service learning.
“When they get to 303, we’re going to have them do some things so that they can examine their own growth,” Dr. Marley says.
Doane Core Connections is easier to chew on, trimmed down so students pick up the essentials to nourish their educational experience. In fact, Dr. Marley says, the lower amount of required credits has parlayed into an uptick in students adding majors or minors now that they have extra time in their schedule.
It’s healthier than a pick-and-choose model. Slimming down the program allowed faculty to install intentional connections between courses, and ultimately, students can now digest the personal relevance and opportunity inherent in a Doane education.
“It’s really reflective of a whole different paradigm in some ways of what the college experience should be; the whole traditional idea you take two years of your gen ed, then you focus on your major and then you get out into the world and somehow at some point those are all supposed to connect and you’re supposed to understand it all,” Dr. Kalbach says. “We wanted to change that to make the liberal arts experience this constant thread that goes throughout the entirety of a student’s time at Doane.”
Flipping the script
For 21st Century students, just lecturing just won’t do.
Dr. Dan Clanton opted for brutal honesty.
There was no way to practice teaching PRE 120, his “Introduction to the Old Testament” class, in a way that was foreign to him and his students. Shifting two of three weekly class periods away from lectures was a big step away from both sides’ norms.
So when he announced he was replacing his customary Wednesday and Friday portions of classroom time with 50-minute “chat room” sessions on those days, it seemed ambitious enough to warrant a disclaimer.
“I told the students the first day, ‘I’ve never done a class like this before, so this is uncharted territory for me, and you all are going to be much more than students this term. You’re really going to be partners in figuring out the best way for us to do this,’” Dr. Clanton recalls with a smile. “So I apologized to them in advance on the first day for when—not if—something would go wrong.’”
It didn’t take long, unfortunately. The associate professor of philosophy and religion’s trial run went a little haywire; in a tight timeframe with each student trying to at least reach minimum participation marks, the conversation didn’t touch on all of the content he wanted.
But it was a starting point. He ironed out the wrinkles in his experiment, untethering himself from the 50-minute time constraint and giving students from Monday afternoon, after their single weekly in-class meeting, until Wednesday morning when a second class meeting would’ve been to take part in the forum.
The result: 92 responses from 11 students—who only needed to make four comments or questions for participation.
“There was no way I could ever have hoped in a face-to-face meeting to have that level of interaction among students. Initially, I was kind of worried about having online discussions because like any other professor in any other department, there’s content I want them to have,” Dr. Clanton says.
But with this new method, he found time to moderate and steer the conversation, and with all of the content he’d provided and the internet’s infinite resources, his students were having richer discussions.
His new hurdle is not if he’ll continue, but when he can explore more online development for his course.
“The balance I’m trying to strike now is how much content can I distribute to them between the assigned readings and online content versus having them interact online solely for discussion,” Dr. Clanton says. “There are ways to get them to have content online.”
This is what he coins a “blipped” class. It’s his spin on a larger movement in higher education to create more engaged classrooms and capitalize on not just the content of a course but the way it’s delivered as well. They’re called “flipped classrooms,” where the age-old lecture content is assigned to students outside of class so they can dig into it with interactive activities in class. Then there’s the blended model, where face-to-face classroom meetings alternate with online discussion or activities.
Members of Doane’s faculty have adopted it over the last several years, but it’s happening more and more in recent years.
“The push to get more engaging classes, more interactive classes, to really use class time better for the best practices in learning, is about 20 years old,” says Dr. John Burney, Doane’s vice president of Academic Affairs. “What’s happened in the last 15 years is the realization of how much a computer can serve to help with the flipped classroom to make all kinds of resources and interaction possible outside the classroom.”
Dr. Clanton’s reached a happy medium between the flipped classroom and blended pedagogy (that’s where his “blipped” term comes from). While still getting to speak with students on Monday, he gets to moderate forums and easily share content—like articles, documentaries, podcasts, PowerPoints, vlogs—through Doane’s Blackboard online learning management system for the rest of the week.
What does all of that do for the traditional college lecture hall argument? Not much.
“The trick is that if you’re just talking at students, you’re not really engaging all the students,” Dr. Clanton says. “They can look like they’re taking notes, but you don’t know how engaged they really are.”
The struggle is real. Lecturing still has a place in the college classroom—some content, Dr. Burney says, is best delivered that way—but rote memorization or book regurgitation doesn’t put any onus on students to react or respond to course materials on the spot.
“How students learn something is as important as what they learn,” Dr. Burney says. “When they walk into a traditional classroom or at one of our big university neighbors, they know that they can sit and hide in class, just take notes in the back or check their email or whatever else they’re going to do while the class is underway. In our classrooms, you can’t hide—and that means students are more engaged in having to discuss the material, having to make an argument, having to support it with evidence from the text that they’re reading or the research that they’re doing.”
That’s exactly how Dr. Katy Hanggi immerses students in her courses with “Reacting to the Past,” a role-playing game where students take on the identities of characters and argue their perspectives in debates with different twists and rules.
In her 100-level Liberal Arts Studies seminar, “The Power of Stories,” first-year students are transported back in time to Manhattan, New York, in the game “Greenwich Village, 1913,” where they assume the roles of three different factions: labor unions, the women’s suffrage movement and radical bohemians. After reading and preparing outside of class, groups negotiate, persuade and compromise their way to completing assigned objectives in class.
Dr. Hanggi, an assistant professor of English, first used the model in the seminar but later applied it to her literature pedagogy. Now, students in her ENG 237 class, “Introduction to Fiction,” play a role-playing game—written by herself—to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Trying to sift through the 1958 novel’s topics of British Colonialism, missionaries, Nigerian tribe culture and the clash of the two sides makes for an entertaining, and sometimes intense, game.
“There’s a flurry of communication that’s happening, so it’s really exciting to have students take over the classroom,” says Dr. Hanggi, who also notes that students are creating pacts and writing proposals for the game outside of class. “It’s really exciting to see them become so invested in a novel or a storyline.”
The same thing can happen in a flipped classroom focused on experiential learning.
Dr. Jared List’s “Spanish in Nebraska” special topics course during the 2015 spring semester, a precursor to a new 300-level Liberal Arts Seminar, blended the traditional classroom with the flipped. Students explored the Latino experience through lectures and documentaries before they were asked to go out in the Crete community and complete a service project.
Class meetings turned into just that—meetings to discuss the project. Outside of class, students rolled up their sleeves and built an event: They interviewed community members. Reached out to local businesses. Distributed promotional items in English and Spanish around Crete. Put together, from setup to tear-down, an event in Fuhrer Field House that brought 50 community members to campus.
Dr. List is used to the flipped classroom model; most language classrooms take that form, using time outside of class for the reading or computerized exercises necessary to practice in it. But in this case, where language and organization skills were used together, the class took on a life of its own.
“The students were the ones out in the community, they were the ones doing the work outside of class and we were using class time to bring everything together, to coordinate,” says Dr. List, assistant professor of modern language. “In that sense, it’s almost as you might see in the business world, where everyone has their job and class time became (like) a meeting time.”
Students also had individual projects to complete, speaking with Latino members of the community. It led Mariah Karlin ’16 to organize a campus visit day for Crete High School students, predominantly Latino students and many that’d never had an official visit. She arranged presentations from faculty, staff and students, including a financial aid talk and student panel Q&A.
“Some of Mariah’s students chose Doane because of that visit day,” Dr. List says.
It was the outcomes of the experiential learning in the flipped classroom combined with her own background as a first-generation college student that inspired her to take the initiative.
“He helped us to see the need for different things in our community,” Mariah says. “He gave us a push to go talk to people in the community.”
Then completely on her own and on her time, she organized a repeat of the event for the fall semester, including a new evening portion for students’ parents.
“My parents always encouraged me to go to college. They always saw the benefit of it, but they didn’t know the process,” says Mariah, an accounting major and business-Spanish double minor from Columbus. “That’s what I loved helping these kids with—their parents didn’t really know either.”
A different take on the classroom means different results for students like Mariah, who now plans to stay involved with helping first-generation college students after she graduates and begins working as a certified public accountant in Omaha. Flipping the classroom is flipping the script: students are just as important in their college education as their instructors.
“The idea is that the students are full participants in their education and their learning,” Dr. List says. “That’s where that experiential service learning comes in, that they’re the ones driving what they learn.”
It’s how Doane’s liberal arts and sciences education differentiates itself in higher ed’s brave new world: with classrooms averaging less than a dozen students, there are no barriers to interactive learning.
“It doesn’t have to be game-based, but the ways that we can have interactions with our students—whether it’s experiential learning, whether it’s student small-group activities and class discussions, the kind of one-on-one and smaller interactions—is really unique to a college of our size,” Dr. Hanggi says. “Our students really benefit from these kinds of experiences that don’t ask them to just sit and take notes but to engage with the material and engage in a way that they’re not used to and pushes their communication skills, their thinking skills. And it makes it fun.”
And that’s the honest truth.