Friday, August 12, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 2

Explicating the Peer Mentoring/Teaching System and More on Counting Beans

It helps me in thinking about the proposed structure of a university that embraces inward looking service learning to envision two types of courses; we’ll label them small and large. In my model small courses are typically taught as seminars and are faculty led. They are places for students to directly interact both with their peers and the instructor in an ensemble fashion. On one level, if we could afford it we’d offer most if not all our courses in this mode with research faculty teaching them. But doing this approach across the board is too expensive. (See my posts from mid June, especially the post on June 14.) So we also offer large classes that are taught in a different modality. The undergraduate peer mentor/teachers are employed primarily in the large classes. The thought is that this bang-bang solution is more effective for learning than having all classes near the average size. However, I will argue below that there are many features of the large class setting that we might want to incorporate in some way in the small environment. So please be prepared for some non-stereotypical thinking.

In the traditional large class setting there might be lectures a couple of times a week and a recitation section once a week. Conscientious students might form study groups outside of class so they can keep up with the reading and assignments and to make sure group members are ready for exams. The main idea is to flip flop the roles. Make the study group the focus by formalizing its structure and scheduling the meeting times just as classes are scheduled. Make the lecture less important and perhaps change what is done during these ensemble sessions.

Some of what I suggest will wreck havoc on how to determine “credit hours” and, frankly, for the learning it is really not that important. But it is important for the revenue allocation to the class and determining whether what I suggest is feasible or not from that vantage. So in the background it might be useful to think of the traditional version of the large course as 3 credit hours (which is what I used as the baseline in my June posts) and to assume the revenue that is generated is derived from that.

Let’s assume these study groups are set by the institution with 5 students per and an undergraduate peer mentor/teacher assigned. Supposed they meet twice a week with the intent that a meeting should last about 90 minutes but is scheduled so that the meeting is assigned a two hour block. The two key points are that no student in the group can claim to have something else going on during that time slot and that the peer mentors can lend something of a voice of experience because they will have taken the course previously, possibly mentored for the course previously as well, and concurrently will be coached by the instructor on how to run these sessions and ensure that the right type of work is being done in them.

Of course the nature of the work that the group does will depend on the subject matter and the instructor style. In my intermediate microeconomics class I had the students do a mixture of machine graded problems in Mallard, written out problems set type of work submitted online and with the graders evaluation also returned online and some more open ended writing. Let’s stick with that for now just to be concrete.

During group meetings the students will discuss recent readings and how best to internalize those into their own way of understanding. They will review work that has been done since the prior meeting as well as other work that may have been returned to them, either with a final evaluation or with commentary that requires further response. The group will spend some time discussing upcoming work and if the labor is to be divided in some way how that should be done. There may also be some time spent on how well the group is functioning and if needed process changes that might make things better.

The group meetings serve both as a direct educational opportunity for the students and as a commitment mechanism. The students must come to the group meetings prepared for the meetings to have value. The students must do the readings and the required work on their own. The meetings are meant to create a positive feedback loop for this individualized work. A significant part of what the mentor/teacher does is to make sure that all the members of the group are receiving this positive feedback. If a particular group member is struggling, that person needs some individual attention and the mentor needs to make arrangements to provide that attention. I don’t want to spend time here talking about out and out slacking off. But, obviously, that would ruin the entire approach and therefore must be weeded out as quickly as possible.

Since the students will do some of their work individually, it is reasonable to assume they will occasionally need help right then and there. Instant messaging with other group members is a possibility. But the class also needs to provide online office hours (and perhaps face to face office hours as well) to keep students engaged and productive while they are doing their work. So another part of the mentor/teacher time commitment is participating in their fair share of staffing those office hours.

Further, the mentor/teachers likely will spend some time as evaluators of the group work that the students submit. It probably makes sense to have some arms length evaluation so that in the evaluator role either the focus is on another group’s work entirely or, if the work can be modularized then each mentor as evaluator focuses on a specific module an becomes expert at that so that evaluation across groups for the same module is delivered in a consistent manner. One of the additional roles that the mentor/teacher fills is to help the students in the group understand and react to the evaluation, to make the students view the criticism they receive as a benefit to give them a new starting point for making modifications on what they’ve done previously.

Some of these courses may rely substantially on online materials that are student created. Thus, the mentor teachers may spend some of their time on content development. It may be that some specialize on this and have little or no direct interaction with the student groups. In any one course specialization of this sort might be desirable. The goal, however, would be that as the students move through the curriculum they get a chance to play both roles as they fill their service learning obligation.
The instructor in effect runs a seminar for the mentor/teachers in her charge. In this way, whether the mentor/teachers are able to as students take other small classes, they do have small class like interaction with the professor. Envision that there is one two hour session per week where issues raised since the previous session are raised, the various mentor teachers compare their experiences of their respective groups, and the professor communicates what next steps are expected. Also envision that there is some seniority among the mentor/teachers so that the more experienced ones may mentor the less experienced ones and the professor may also mentor some of the experienced ones. The professor may make a point of attending a couple of the group sessions each week, both to learn what goes on there and to show the professors interest in that those sessions are well done.

What about lectures? My suggestion is that the professor would run an optional “review session” that either went over the lessons that should have been learned from the work the students completed the previous week or that focused on similar but not identical problems to be worked through so the students can see how to generalize from the work they’ve done and perhaps to get a different view on how to approach the work. If there were other course staff, say some experienced graduate students, they could be doing the more traditional type of lecture that centers on presentation of the material. Otherwise, that type of thing could be moved online and perhaps done in a way that is more accessible to the students (modular clips, linked with support materials, perhaps delivered by the mentor/teachers and in their style of language, to convey that the material is intellectually accessible). Alternatively, lectures may be dispensed with entirely and instead be replaced with online interactive content.

Suppose this large class had 200 students and had one mentor/teacher per 10 students. (Thus, thee mentor/teachers would facilitate two of the study groups.) I’m going to rely on the same revenue numbers as in my June 14 post, but note one critical change as a consequence of the new approach. Students take fewer classes in this internal service learning world, so the revenue contributed per class can be higher. In the June 14 post that revenue number was $400. Here it makes sense to bump it up it up to $500.

Here is the consequence of that assumption.

Revenue generated = (200 + 20) x $500 = $110,000

Direct Compensation for mentor/teachers (4 quarter time mentor/teachers together costs $12,800) = 5*$12,800 = $64,000.

Thus revenue net of compensation for the teacher mentors is $56,000. If there are no graduate Teaching Assistants, then half the faculty members salary can be paid (we assumed that was $100,000) and it seems reasonable to assume that this obligation represents half the faculty member’s teaching burden. Plus a small surplus of $6,000 is generated. That is about half the stipend of a graduate assistant, which is one possible use of the funds. If more graduate assistants were viewed as needed, the class would have to larger.

This arithmetic is meant to show that yes, one can do this inward looking service learning model with research faculty, but they would of necessity have to embrace the approach and be willing to teach in this mode.

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