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Professors win grant for ILA makeover

March 22, 2013

ACM funds project to make ILA classes consistent in critical thinking

Introduction to the Liberal Arts, the introductory course that every freshman must take, may be seeing some changes in the future.

On Feb. 8-10, associate professor of English Marlo Belschner and Communication Across the Curriculum director Bridget Draxler attended the Introducing Change Workshop created by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn.

The conference, titled “Introducing Change: Introductory Courses and the Nature of Faculty Work,” drew nine faculty teams from eight ACM colleges together to discuss revisions to introductory courses. The intent, as stated on the ACM’s website, was to “foster collaboration among campuses, so that teams conducting course experiments can gain comparative perspective on the findings that emerge about trends in liberal arts teaching and faculty work.”

These faculty teams, including the Monmouth team consisting of Belschner, Draxler and associate professor, educational studies department and director of Teacher Education Craig Vivian, drafted project proposals for changes made to an introductory course to be taught in the Fall 2013 semester. According to ACM’s website, the projects had to “revise an introductory course on their campus (or a college’s roster of first-year seminars) in ways that cultivate higher-order thinking skills. The teams will also identify and document how faculty work and its reward structures can change in order to sustain these innovations.”

Monmouth College’s proposal was accepted, and the team was given a $2,500 grant to support the project as well as additional expenses for the workshop, according to the ACM website.

The team’s proposal, which focuses on uniformity among ILA classes in the approach to teaching critical thinking, found echoes of this in the workshop seminars.

“One of the professors at the conference was a geology professor from Macalaster,” said Belschner, “he said what he really isn’t teaching are facts. Facts are important, but you also need to keep track of these higher order skills, and stay goal oriented.”

Keeping that in mind, the team hopes to revise the ILA courses by introducing a series of skills and exercise that, according to the draft proposal provided by Belschner, “norm students to college-level reading and critical reading expectations, improve critical reading (which we define as analyzing, clarifying, interpreting, and evaluating both the immediate and nuanced meanings in the text), and develop a shared vocabulary of critical reading terms for student understanding of the structures of disciplines to frame their understanding of the expectations and demands of various ways of knowing.”

“We’re going to develop a series of exercises for ILA,” Belschner said. “They’re scaffolded, so basic skills first, and then they get more complex. Students who are successful in learning have some sense of what is distinctive about what they’re learning. How to think like a scientist, how to read like a scientist and they’re able to switch back and forth.”

Under the new project, students will be exposed to various types of literature, not just traditional English literature, but philosophy and scientific writing as well, and be asked to consider the differences and apply those differences critically.

“[Vivian] and I aren’t forcing the ILA faculty to do this, we aren’t forcers,” Belschner said. “We’re asking them to help us create these series of exercises. Hopefully these will have a huge effect and we will offer them up to the faculty. We do a lot of critical thinking and critical reading in that class, but we are not uniform in our directness. In other words, we’re kind of saying, ‘Yes we know what critical thinking is, this is what makes it’ but if you’re asked to make a list of those things that make up critical thinking, we wouldn’t be at all consistent.”

Belschner added that while all of the ILA faculty model critical thinking and reading every day, the hope is that this will become more explicit, and having a set of uniform activities that resonate across the different classes will create a more balanced student.

The changes will be made to ILA classes for the Fall 2013 semester, after which the ACM faculty teams are expected to report their findings.

Sarah Zaubi

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