Foreword: What Makes a University Course Good?

Rebecca Ropers-Huilman


What makes a university course good? The extent to which course experiences facilitate students’ learning of predetermined objectives? The ways in which the course pushes students beyond their boundaries to develop both content and communication skills? How the course ultimately prepares people to meet society’s needs? The likelihood that the course is sustainable over time? Innovative Learning and Teaching: Experiments Across the Disciplines addresses all of these questions through the lenses of university instructors grappling with challenges they experienced in their classes, and thinking creatively about how to overcome those challenges.

This book is about teachers who care about students’ learning and are motivated to take risks and actively reflect on how to best facilitate that learning. What is most resonant for me after reading “Innovative Learning and Teaching” is how important relationships and communities are to effective higher education.

Opening Part 1, “Expanding Active Learning,” Mark Pedelty describes the challenges and advantages of a digitally networked field course on environmental communication and suggests that learning can be enriched if done in the contexts being considered in the class. In other words, learning in communities strengthens the learning. Laure Charleux describes the gamification of her GIS statistics course and notes the importance of classroom community and students’ abilities to rely on each other, even if key activities in the course rely on individual effort. Karin Hamilton and Tricia Todd reflect on how bringing real world health challenges as case studies into their classroom facilitate students’ knowledge of how to work in interprofessional teams and develop their identities both as health professionals and as team members. They stress that learning how to be in relationship with one another is critically important to developing an appropriate response to health-related challenges. Mary M. Rowan, Mary Steffes, Carol Flaten, Lori Rhudy and Nima Salehi illustrate how changes in a profession necessitate changes in pedagogical approaches. They explain how using simulations with nursing students help to ensure that those students can participate adequately in a technology that is increasingly used in that field. These simulations help future nurses hone communication and relational skills that they will use as they serve their broader communities.

The chapters of Part 2,  “Building New Course Structures,” expand this focus on the importance of relationships in learning, and focuses more directly on how the structures of the courses can facilitate learning developed through those relationships. Reflecting on his teaching of Chemistry, Brian Gute writes, “I became convinced that if I was going to improve the experience for my students, I needed some way to connect with them as individuals. That connection would also provide me with a lens into their learning, giving me a clearer picture of what they understood and where they were still struggling.” He elected to implement a flipped classroom model that facilitates students’ learning about teams, ensures students’ accountability for their own learning, and makes the learning fun for students and teacher alike. Robert K. Poch and Eskender Yousuf describe their desire to help students “experience the excitement of historical discovery and personal meaning-making” through incorporating problem-based learning into their teaching of History. By asking students what problems they want to investigate and focusing on materials from and about that time period, students develop relationships with their instructors as guides rather than conveyors of “truth.”  They further come to develop independent skills as emerging historians. Alex Cummings, Andrea Stoddard, Pat McCarthy Veach, Bonnie LeRoy and Heather Zierhut structure their course around case-based learning where students observe recorded genetic counseling sessions and respond to questions associated with those sessions. While the authors note limitations of this approach, they believe that it enhances students’ abilities to work with future clients. Similar to Poch and Yousuf’s desire, Brad Hokanson and Jody Lawrence intended that their students “be personally interested and invested in their work, and for them to be motivated and self-driven.” To accomplish this, they use generative learning that fosters both creativity and confidence in the community that is created by the class structure. Daniel Philippon, Barrett Colombo, Fred Rose and Julian Marshall describe a structure to implement a curriculum that is focused on meeting the grand challenges of our larger society. Among other strategies, they explicitly teach students how to transform “Knowledge to Impact” so that they learn about identified challenges and take action to address those challenges.

Part 3, “Reframing Assessment,” brings together chapters focusing on how assessment tools can help students develop their skills and knowledge related to both course content and, in some cases, learning in collaboration with peers. Gabriela Sweet, Sara Mack and Anna Olivero-Agney advocate for tools that put the learner at the center of courses (in this case, language courses) and help learners reflect purposefully about their learning. By including a “Human Dimension” in this assessment, students develop awareness of how language skills can help them develop both self-awareness and meaningful interactions with others. Xavier Prat-Resina, Molly Dingel and Robert Dunbar describe how faculty at an innovative teaching and learning campus developed a tool to help them determine how to structure their courses to maximize students’ success. This chapter describes how a faculty can work together to create learning tools that benefit both students’ and faculty members’ learning. Mary M. Rowan, Carol Flaten, Lori Rhudy and Nima Salehi explain their use of video, self-review, peer response, and instructor feedback in areas related to key nursing skills. They found that when students had hands-on experience with multiple levels of feedback, they learned from others how to refine their practice. Steven M. Manson, Melinda Kernik, Dudley Bonsal, Laura Matson, Eric Deluca, Ashwini Srinivasamohan and Sophia Strosberg outline how they used mapping, “as a tool to examine interrelationships among individuals, institutions, structures, events, ideas, and technology.” Advocating that maps can be used to tell stories, they present the wide range of uses that students can experience through technology associated with mapping to engage in spatial thinking. Focusing on the use and value of lectures in online courses, Thomas Brothen, Penny Nichol and Esther Joy Steenlage Maruani analyzed three Psychology courses that were taught entirely online. They found that lectures were not a significant predictor of most learning measures and advocated that lectures be seen as a supplement to, rather than a centerpiece of, university courses. Finally, Daniel Woldeab, Thomas Lindsay and Thomas Brothen review the relatively new assessment tool of online proctoring. To ensure academic integrity during assessments taken outside a traditional, place-based class setting, online proctoring serves as a way to expand the reach of university course offerings to those who are geographically dispersed or otherwise unable to take an assessment  in a traditional setting.

Throughout Innovative Learning and Teaching: Experiments Across the Disciplines, three things are clear. First, relationships matter. The relationships between students and teachers are key to learning; similarly, the relationships among faculty who come together to improve their teaching are also instrumental to teaching innovation. Second, institutional support matters. Many authors referred to institutional support that facilitated their learning innovations. Administrators at several levels can incentivize the development of new teaching approaches, both through funds to experiment as well as through an encouragement to take teaching risks that may encounter unanticipated obstacles. Finally, it is clear that the teacher’s role in advancing student learning is of utmost importance. This is true both in commonly understood ways (such as clarity of expectations and the crafting of experiences that advance clearly articulated course objectives) as well as in less commonly discussed ways (such as the teacher’s passion, creativity, and interpersonal relationships with students).

Collectively, the authors in this volume demonstrate a commitment to on-going responsiveness to challenges as well as a desire to incorporate opportunities made available by technological developments. Readers will benefit from both specific ideas about course design and the active reflections of teachers who care deeply about their relationships with students, their disciplines, and the broader world.