Interdisciplinary Teaching Just Makes Good Sense

March 20, 2012

The GHC community has initiated several new projects designed to engage students and faculty more fully, and to enrich both learning and relationships.  The idea behind learning communities, which is one such project, has been threading its way through academic conversations for several years.  Now studies show that creating groups of students who pursue together the study of one theme via several disciplines is enhancing their academic experience.  They are more analytical in their thinking.  They see the big picture.

They can understand how one historical event, for example, impacted life and culture, not just at the time of the event, but for years, decades, even centuries later.  And they can get different perspectives of that same event – from its place in the political landscape of the time to its social significance to its psychological impact on individuals or a country as a whole.   Looking at the London Blitz during World War II, students can study the events leading to war between Germany and Britain, the way the British reacted to the constant bombardment, the role of the royal family, or how the experience affected families and children.

Incorporating different aspects and elements of one historical event gives students a better sense of the reality of the time, place and people involved.  It also triggers their thought process, probably because their imaginations are actively engaged.  And that, in turn, inspires analysis.

But there’s a second benefit to these learning communities.  The same group stays together for classes.  Students bond.  They become friends.  They study together and discuss what they’re working on.  And this behavior also leads to deeper learning.  It’s a win-win for faculty and students.  And ultimately for employers, because their biggest wish for new hires just out of college is the ability to think analytically and in the abstract.  Meredith Ginn, assistant professor of communication, says the results of learning communities are striking.  “I think the critical thinking aspect of a learning community is one of its biggest advantages,” she said.  “Students can synthesize information and make those connections between concepts.”

Many faculty members are participating in GHC learning communities.  They are going to professional development sessions, and even contributing to the training sessions.  They know that the term learning community will mean something slightly different for Georgia Highlands from what it means to research institutions.

Most Georgia Highlands students don’t live on campus, interacting constantly with each other.  So they may not become the kind of community that solves problems and poses theories together.  Rather, their classes will become their learning community.  Faculty members cooperatively choose the curriculum for a common theme or an era of study in history and literature.  The same students attend both classes and work on the same projects that tie the two together.

Faculty members sometimes attend the sister sessions, working with each other to create activities and discussion topics that will foster deeper understanding of the subject and broader thinking.  Students can also participate actively in planning projects, an exercise that increases their engagement.  And the lessons become relevant.  Ginn uses the “I Have a Dream” speech, and her students discuss the language devices used in it.  In doing so they learn both about the content of the speech and its place in history, as well as the composition of the speech itself.

Laura Musselwhite, current associate vice president of  academic and student affairs, and Carla Patterson, associate professor of English, each sit in history and communication classes that are part of their learning community.  Musselwhite, who taught the history portions, said that as wonderful as the results are for students, successfully teaching this kind of integrated course requires a mind open to change on the part of the teacher.  “You have to adjust your expectations a bit, because you are a team,” she said.  “You can’t just go solo the way you typically do in a class.  You have to be able to work very closely in the classroom with another teacher who may teach in a style unlike yours or grade differently from the way you do.  The experience really opens you up to new ideas, but you must be accepting of change.  Carla and I are in each other’s classroom for every session, so we can interact more fully with the material and help explain the linkages to students.  Other faculty members probably do it differently.”

Traditionally, learning communities were devised to give students more control and decision-making in their learning trajectory.  Of course, when they gain control, teachers lose some.  The process can be frustrating at times, and definitely much slower than the traditional structured syllabus.  But research shows that learning is enhanced and more knowledge retained from this collaborative environment.

The idea of learning communities has been around for at least a decade.   They can be structured in one of three ways, but whatever their form, their focus is on the community or cohort of students and the learning that takes place among them.  Some communities are built around the cohort, which takes classes not coordinated by the faculty.  However, the intellectual collaboration and community-building may take place in a seminar expressly for that purpose.

The second kind of community parallels the efforts at Georgia Highlands, where the student cohort coalesces around course clusters coordinated by faculty.  Or, as a third alternative, faculty members may team teach, with the course work embedded in an integrated course of study.

There are infinite variations of these three types of learning communities, and every college adapts them to its unique needs and environment.  Most institutions now offer these experiences, primarily to freshmen as a way to integrate them into college life.  Here at GHC, students taking the First Year Experience become a cohort, choosing their own service learning project that often inspires them to continue volunteer efforts on their own.  They also form friendships and support systems within the group.  It’s just a win-win for everyone.

Students also seem to love this integration of two disciplines into one overarching learning experience.  Laura Musselwhite supplied some student comments from assessments of her history and communications collaboration with Carla Patterson.  A student from that class in 2010 said, “I have loved both of these courses.  I love the fact that both were combined together.  I have learned more information between these two classes than [the rest of] my entire college career.”

Another 2010 student had this to say: “It helps you understand the relationship of literature and history.  It shows that literature is a part of history.  It helps show what was going on in certain time periods and may give you an understanding of why a certain piece of literature was created.”

Even when the learning community idea was new at Georgia Highlands in 2002, the comments from the first class were enthusiastic.  One student said, “The course allowed me to understand the effects that history has had on literature.  It’s easier to understand the linkages when you have the courses at the same time.”

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