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Lilly Conference on College & University Teaching

“Millennial Learning:Teaching in the 21st Century”

February 20-21, Greensboro

The Lilly Conference focuses on academic pedagogy, but despite the 2009 theme of millennial learning, presenters I heard chose to forgo the familiar litany of millennials’ characteristics, and proceeded instead to address best practices designed to meet this group’s learning styles and predilections.

The Opening Session, presented by Milton Cox of Miami University, actively demonstrated its title, “Strategies, Practices, and Evidence to Encourage and Facilitate Active-Learner-Centered Approaches.” Cox posed questions to be answered by the round-table groups, soliciting consensus definitions of active, learner-centered approaches, as well as instances from participants’ own teaching of effective engagement with students; and cited evidence that such approaches produce optimal results.Discussion, cooperative and collaborative learning, problem-based, active, and experiential were key terms that recurred throughout his presentation and in the proferred answers to his questions, all summed up by his challenge to be the “guide on the side, not sage on the stage.”

I next attended Dr. James Eison’s “Put-Offs and Turn-Ons in the College Classroom.”A faculty member at the University of South Florida in the Department of Adult, Career, and Higher Education, he skillfully launched a lively discussion by asking us to “reflect candidly” on both irritating and desirable behaviors in students and in faculty alike.There was no dearth or reluctance of response.Arrogance, condescension, boastfulness, bias, vintage notes, lack of preparation or currency, failure to respond to emails quickly or to return graded work promptly, “death by powerpoint,” unapproachable, failure to communicate expectations, reading from textbook material, and ambiguous assignments all came to mind as faculty behaviors irritating to students.On the other side of the coin, faculty are averse to lack of engagement, attention, and preparation; excessive familiarity (“YO, Stan!” was a case in point cited by one professor); packing up early; plagiarism; tardiness; and engaging in other non-academic activities such as IMing, email, and ESPN.In contrast to these modes of conduct, faculty cited impressive and desirable student behaviors such as thoughtful questions, discussion of papers and projects with the professor, active participation, demonstration of a desire to learn, courtesy, respect for others’ ideas, and enthusiasm.After having elicted such lengthy lists, Dr. Eison then discussed studies that have in fact corroborated these aversive reactions.Repetitive lectures, reading from textbooks, information overload, monotonous delivery, verbal abuse (!), and poor organization and planning apparently are verifiably counterproductive.He did note that cultural and other elements of diversity (e.g. a younger generation of professors) create fuzziness and uncertainty about expected conduct (witness “Yo, Stan”), and that a syllabus spelling out expected behavior and a classroom code of conduct developed by students themselves would be ways of addressing this type of problem.

Another concurrent session focused specifically on multi-cultural classrooms and contexts.Maria Stallions from Roanoke College led a discussion of “Classrooms as Knowledge-Building Communities:A Cross-Cultural Competence and Inquiry Approach.”Her warm-up session was intriguing:looking at photographs and giving one-word responses.For example, there was a Newsweek cover image of a fully armed soldier.All of our responses were variations on the theme of violence, war, or excessive force.However, she said that some audiences in other meetings responded with words like “security” or “safety.” She stressed the importance of developing cross-cultural competence as classrooms become increasingly diverse both linguistically and culturally, and singled out key components of culture and communication, such as perceptions of time, communication styles, social structure, and values and beliefs.This, too, was a very interactive and engaging session for all participants.

For years now we have become quite familiar with LIB 100 assignments involving assessment of websites.So a session on “Meeting the Millennials:Using Wikipedia to Teach 21st-Century Literacy Skills to First Year Writing Students,” by Paula Patch, an Instructor in the English Department at Elon University, certainly seemed apt.The indisputable premise that the online world is more familiar to students than the academic world inspired Patch to use Wikipedia to teach critical literacy skills.She devised a detailed evaluation assignment, requiring the students to write an essay arguing for or against the reliability of a Wikipedia article.A highly detailed questionnaire guided the writing assignment, posing queries regarding completeness of information, organization, referenceerrors, flagging, history and discussion, page linkage, and intended audience.It is a useful guide for possible use in ZSR literacy skills work.

Another session focused on course blogs, in this case the use of a blog to post research findings about pediatric assessment tools.Students of Dr. Paula Hudson , in Elon University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, were asked to post information on a measure, followed by comments by other students.For Dr. Hudson, class blogs offer several advantages:they free up class time, replace solitary classroom presentations with knowledge-sharing collaborative projects, and result in instant publication.Students in this course indeed felt that they had created an information-rich resource.

On Saturday, the Plenary Session was “Persisting with Passion:A Summary of Break-throughs in Teaching and Learning,” led by Barbara Millis of the University of Texas, San Antonio. It was one of the more in-depth sessions, summarizing approaches to cooperative learning, deep learning, and teaching methodologies, in the hopes of enabling teachers to save “years of wasted energy in your teaching life by reducing the cycle of teaching blunders and naivete.”Dr. Millis is Director of the Teaching and Learning Center, and she defined cooperative learning as “a structured form of small group problem solving that incorporates the use of heterogeneous teams, maintains individual accountability, promotes positive interdependence, instills group processing, and sharpens social skills.”She advocated a combination of student self-selecting and teacher-selected group formation,and suggested rotating student team roles as leader or facilitator, recorder or scribe, reporter or spokesperson, and folder monitor.Deep learning was a concept frequently referred to during the conference, and she singled out the key elements of a deep approach to learning:intrinsic student motivation, active rather than passive involvement in learning, interactive discussion with others, and a well-structured base of knowledge in which content is integrated and related to other knowledge rather than presented in discrete pieces.She noted that although deep learning and doing work well together, active learning comprised solely of doing is not sufficient.When students are engaged in activities involving discussion, questioning, clarification, and writing, there is better subject matter retention as well as expansion of students’ critical thinking abilities.Deep approaches to learning incorporate understanding rather than memorizing facts, and relies on integrating new concepts with prior experience and existing knowledge.She elaborated on three learning principles, which she identified as prior knowledge (students create new knowledge based on preexisting knowledge-or lack thereof);”deep foundational knowledge” (students require a conceptual framework and knowledge base; and metacognition (students need to identify learning goals and subsequently to monitor their own progress in meeting them).She noted the importance of knowing where students are and what they know or don’t know, and then helping students take control of their own learning process.Her packet included printouts of some of her own publications referred to during the presentation.

My favorite session was offered byDorothe Bach, Assistant Professor and Faculty Consultant in the Teaching Resource Center/Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. She presented a very engaging session on using scholarly listservs to introduce students to discipline-specific communication.Aware that students often are intimidated by the scholarly discourse they encounter in academic books and journals, Professor Bach devised an assignment that woulddemystify the process by which questions emerge and knowledge and scholarship are created.She chose the Child_lit listserv from Rutgers University, which discusses theory and criticism of literature for children and young adults, while offering all the immediacy of dialogue and debate.After asking the listserv for permission and giving a heads-up to the community, she asked students to take time first to lurk and to explore threads of interest in the archives, and then to venture into the discussion either by responding in a substantive way to an ongoing discussion or by raising a relevant new topic.(She did recommend peer review feedback prior to posting and defined the characteristics of good postings.)A class presentation and reflection paper discussed the issues raised in relevant threads and articulated responses to this particular listserv culture.The assignment was an exhilarating success.Students were thrilled to have participated in ongoing dialogue with authors, scholars and other individuals on the listserv, and to have been taken seriously by the community as the members responsed to their postings.It didn’t hurt that none other than Philip Pullman (author of the Dark Materials series-The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Skyglass) posted there until the demands of movie-making drew him away.It was an innovative approach to the problem of how to initiate students to scholarly communication in a more informal framework.

Another fun, very active learning plenary session was led by Darby Lewes of Lycoming College.The emphatic title, “Armageddon 101:Dealing with Disruptive Students and Their ‘Natural’ Aversion to a Discipline” actually turned out to be a very lively, energetic hour spent explicating two of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess.”As Dr. Lewes paced relentlessly around the Victoria Ballroom, followed by her appropriately name-tagged dog (until the dog dropped out of sight presumably for much-deserved rest), she coaxed answers to interpretive questions.

Finally, to conclude on a culinary note of sorts:mealtimes became forums for exchanging tales of economic woe in academe.At first I thought I had mis-heard when a young academic from the University of Georgia disclosed that office telephones had been taken away:a redundancy in the age of cell phones, email, texting, and IM-ing, not to mention Twitter.But the revelation was corroborated on the following day when a Ph.D. student at UC-Santa Barbara shared a similar story, embellished and enhanced with accounts of increased teaching loads and escalating office occupancy figures.One would-be presenter had to cancel due to a travel ban.Others were only able to attend thanks to the hospitality of friends or family members.Indeed, there was a preponderance of attendees from UNC-G, Elon, and other area schools; however, the conference does attract from distant regions and it was the richer for that reason.