By Carly Moran
Melissa Giovanni, an instructor in the Department of Geoscience, teaches Introduction to Geology to hundreds of students each semester. Recent changes to how she delivers the course material have led to a revolution in her teaching.
Giovanni is involved in Project Engage, a two-year pilot program that provides selected faculty with the support and resources they need to improve the learning experiences of students in first-year arts and sciences courses.
Giovanni began her redesign by defining the course’s “Big Ideas” before determining what material she needed to cover. This new approach allowed Giovanni to think more critically about why she covers certain material, and led to an outline that was more effective with less content.
“It was refreshing to learn that I didn’t need to go into minute detail on every subject to teach the course effectively,” says Giovanni. “When I honed in on the big ideas before designing the course, I discovered I was in a better position to evaluate my success.”
Advance preparation paid huge dividends for Giovanni when she determined her main objective for the course was to inspire students to become better Earth citizens who were more aware of the environment. This awareness allowed her to eliminate content that didn’t fit with the overall theme.
However, Giovanni admits that determining the big ideas isn’t always intuitive. It takes work to define the information that’s truly important, and what can be removed without affecting the overall course objectives.
“Instructors don’t always think holistically about ‘why’ we cover certain material,” says Giovanni. “It’s really powerful when you start by determining the course’s major themes, and follow through with a plan that gets you to that end effectively.”
Giovanni also introduced her students to the concept of “think, pair, share.” After posting an image on screen, she asked students a few questions that required the synthesis of information discussed in previous lectures. Students were then encouraged to pair up with the person sitting beside them to discuss. Tuning into conversations around the room gave Giovanni insight into her teaching effectiveness.
“It was surprising to learn that informal assessments could provide such valuable information about student learning,” says Giovanni. “Allowing time for student discussion during lectures helped me gauge their level of understanding, and enabled them to make connections that were more relevant to their everyday lives.”
Learn more about Project Engage.