Gennifer Weisenfeld Discusses Use of Active Learning Techniques in Seminars

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Gennifer Weisenfeld, professor of art, art history and visual studies

We have 21st century technology to thank for such buzzwords as “flipped classroom,” “MOOC” and “team-based learning.”

Duke faculty who want to take advantage of these tools and practices in their own classes can consult with the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT. Between May and December 2015, nine faculty Active Learning Fellows in the sciences, humanities and engineering learned about active learning methods—such as “flipped” classroom lectures, where students review lecture materials prior to class time—with three CIT consultants.

Gennifer Weisenfeld, professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, was one of only two Active Learning Fellows without a science background.  Weisenfeld spoke with Duke Today about bringing active learning into her fall semester courses “Japanese Architecture” and “From the Art of the Pleasure Quarters to Tokyo Pop.”

What prompted you to apply for the Active Learning Fellowship?

I’m sure a lot of my colleagues [in the humanities] would tell you that we’re not trained as teachers in graduate school. We learn all about doing research and pick up our teaching methods while serving as TAs or lecturing on our own. There is really no formal pedagogical instruction. I thought it was time for me to commit more deeply to my teaching. So I applied and was accepted to the fellowship, and they basically only asked us to have one class in mind to which we could apply active learning methods.

What were you hoping to gain from the fellowship going in? How did the reality differ from your expectations?

Going in, I thought that any small strategy or template [I could gain from the fellowship] would be helpful, because I had basically been using my own teaching methods up to this point. It exceeded my expectations wildly. It made teaching fun again. Teaching has always been rewarding for me, but I don’t know if I’d use the word “fun.”

The three instructors we had—Andrea Novicki, Seth Anderson and Randy Riddle—offer so many things and are so flexible. They really want to know what they can do to make us better teachers. One brilliant thing they did: they taught us the teaching method using the teaching method. So if you’re learning about team-based learning exercises, you’re learning how to do it through a team-based learning exercise. If you’re learning the gallery walk method, you’re doing that through a gallery walk. It demonstrates the strategy by showing you exactly how it works.

I noticed that you were one of only two fellows teaching smaller humanities classes. How did you apply active learning techniques to classes that already rely so much on in-class discussions?

In the humanities, we give out a lot of assigned readings prior to the lecture, but we can never be sure if the students are doing them in a focused way or know what to look for while they’re reading. So I sent my students all my lecture slides and handouts along with the readings. This doesn’t necessarily amount to giving the students the full story before class but instead helps them know what to look for when they’re reading.

I started many classes with a “think-pair-share” question, which I found to be one of the most useful active learning strategies. “Think-pair-share” means that you aren’t cold-calling students in class but are giving them a question to work through with their neighbor. This gives them time to come up with a richer answer because they’re not just being put on the spot. And the students in each pairing end up teaching each other.

How are you going to apply the lessons you’ve learned from the fellowship to your teaching next semester?

I will be teaching a 500-level course called “Imaging a Nation: Japanese Visual Culture 1868-1945,” so it will have seniors and graduate students and be very discussion-oriented. I thought the active learning exercises were great for these kinds of discussion-based courses because they don’t require me to constantly prompt the students for their input. They automatically generate more original thoughts from the students, especially when it comes to comments that they make to one another.

And just because I’m asking more questions of my students or building in active learning exercises doesn’t mean that I’ve totally given up on lecturing. I do a combination where I know the activities will reinforce my lectures and vice versa. Students still want a certain amount of knowledge coming from an authority.

What advice do you have for Duke faculty in the humanities considering applying for a CIT fellowship?

Do it! It is a time investment, and it’s not going to save you time on your teaching. Don’t expect that students are going to teach themselves just because you’re using these techniques. It’s a lot of work but it’s enormously rewarding. And even if you think you might have to give up some level of content or depth, actually you can cover almost as much material if not the same amount because your students are often going to get the main points themselves the first time around. You don’t have to restate the material because these techniques help students understand it and articulate it themselves. Instead, you can spend the extra time in class on answering more in-depth questions from your students.

For more information about CIT fellowships, click here.