The sweeter side of teaching
“What I do is what I like to do with chocolates – provide a lot of variety and then have people take what they like from it and make something of it.”
That’s how Queen’s geography professor Anne Godlewska explains her general theory of teaching. The bon-bon analogy may seem a little odd, but it reflects one of her interests. In addition to her academic credentials (author or editor of five monographs, one web-based atlas, many articles and a former associate dean), Godlewska is also an avid amateur chocolate maker (her orange creams are particularly noteworthy).
As pedagogical goals go, plenty of variety and the chance to make something of what you are offered are right up there. But as Godlewska herself discovered in 2010 after returning to teaching undergraduates after several years in administration, providing isn’t so easy. Queen’s has a strong reputation for quality undergraduate education, but at universities everywhere today there are a lot of pressures that make this difficult to deliver – student enrollments have climbed, and with that their disengagement. The number of instructors has dropped, and professors are under considerable pressure to chase funding for research.
“How,” Godlewska asks, “can you teach a large number of students in an engaged way” given these competing, sometimes contradictory, forces? Since 2010, Godlewska has been trying to find the answer to that question, by turning her introductory course Geography 101: Human Geography into a virtual pedagogical laboratory. Over the years (she has taught the one-semester course five times since then), she has used a spate of teaching techniques in this introductory course – lectures (both live and online), podcasts, peer evaluation, online quizzes, different class sizes and so on – to try to create an environment in which students can be active participants in learning, not merely passive recipients.
Godlewska cautions that “101 is very much an ongoing experiment,” but, when it comes to keeping students engaged in large introductory classes, she has already reached a few conclusions. Generally, the traditional model, which she characterizes as a hub and spoke (spatial metaphors come easily to someone who teaches geography), with the professor at the hub, delivering knowledge via lectures, doesn’t work. And it isn’t enough to put the lectures online, either. “As difficult as conventional lectures are for some students, they’re almost impossible for all students to watch online. They’re just not engaging.”
Using another spatial metaphor, Godlewska characterizes what seems to work best in terms of engagement – nodes (groups of different people interacting at different times). Sometimes it is students with her, sometimes with TAs, sometimes with each other. It is, she says, “a much more complex series of actions.”
January 2015 will see the sixth and most radical version of Geography 101 yet. “We’re going to be offering it entirely online and in-person at the same time, trying to get a design that is almost identical, to compare and contrast what’s going on.”
In place of lectures, the course will feature a series of ten minute podcasts on particular subjects and also on skill acquisition such as where to find sources, how to read them and so on. “In class,” says Godlewska, “they are going to be working in teams to solve particular problems.”
“They’ll be arguing a debate point, but not so much pros and cons. One group might be looking at the oil sands and arguing that economic factors are all that matter. Another, at food.”
There’s a twist. “In your individual work you’ll be required to argue the opposite and deliver not a paper, but a poster. It’s like a ten or fifteen page paper in terms of text and argument, but a little harder to produce. It’s also more interesting for me and the TAs to mark. There are no exams and no quizzes, it’s all about what it will take to make the group and the individual programs work.”
In this nodal approach, says Godlewska, “You don’t need to be in control all the time.” Instead, the professor’s job becomes “to set up structures for them [the students] to play a more important part.” The professor is overseer and provider, but not the sole, ultimate authority.
“Returning to the chocolate mode for a moment, you provide things they might like, but ultimately they are responsible for their choices.”
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014
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Dr. Godlewska's research