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Designing Classics Courses for "Significant Learning"

At the beginning of the summer I wrote about resources that have helped me with my writing and research. Now, as we start thinking about our classes for the Fall, I’d like to mention a book that has helped me understand the value of my work teaching the Classics and taught me to design classes that convey that value to students. My fellow blogger Ted Gellar-Goad recently wrote about the importance, and difficulty, of helping students “see value” in our courses. He rightly calls this “the hardest lever of motivation to pull.” And it’s not just students who need to see value.  Amid the almost daily declarations of the death of the humanities (now, thankfully, becoming less frequent), I myself have sometimes had trouble seeing, or at least, articulating the value in what I do. There are no simple solutions but the book I’m going to discuss below and in my next few posts offers many tools to meet this challenge. It is one we need to think about because it is by rising to this challenge that the formal study of the humanities will perpetuate itself.

The book is L.D. Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences. The title, with its whiff of the dreaded teacher inservice may be off-putting to jaded academics but in it Fink has taken on a task that most college faculty are unqualified to do, even if they were given the time: he has digested research on pre-collegiate education and translated it into terms relevant to college and university education. The book is organized as a “How To” book, walking the reader through the steps necessary to create a course in which the students will engage in what Fink calls “Significant Learning” (there's an abbreviated worksheet available online). By this he means a course in which the students engage as frequently as possible in six different forms of learning. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Aristotle but I’ve found his typology of learning enormously useful for identifying the gaps in my courses and in articulating the value of a humanities education.

I only have space in this post to discuss the first three of Fink’s types of learning.  I’ll cover the other three in a future post.

Fink’s first category of learning is “Foundational Knowledge.” Every course I’ve taken and taught included this component, and he’s not asking us to abandon it.  He is, however, pointing out that this is only one aspect of student learning. In my experience, at least, teaching “foundational knowledge” alone is not enough to keep students engaged and sustain my own interest in a course.

His second category is “Application.” This is where students use their “Foundational Knowledge” to do something.  Our language courses usually include this: vocabulary, morphology, and syntax are “Foundational Knowledge” and reading texts is “Application.” But many other Classics courses, particularly non-language-based “Civ” courses, often lack any element of “Application.” This might be why those courses are often regarded even among faculty as inferior to our language courses: because they do not often enough move beyond the simple transmission of knowledge to the application of that knowledge. Writing a term paper is a kind of application, but that assignment is so generalized (most courses require it) that, if we are honest with ourselves, it rarely interfaces tightly other forms of learning and the disciplinary specificity of Classics. Our colleagues in the sciences and, especially, engineering have a huge advantage over us in this regard because their disciplines are structured to incorporate “Application” into their curricula in the form of research assistantships, labs, and project-based courses. We in the humanities need to learn to articulate what we “do” (or “make”) with our knowledge.

Which leads me to Fink’s third category of learning, “Integration.” This is where students connect the contents of one course to other forms of knowledge and courses. In my experience it is rare for courses in Classics to explicitly give students opportunities to do this but students are eager to make such connections and indeed, often do so on their own. Fink’s emphasis on this form of learning is tremendously important in the humanities because except for the small number of students we are training to be professional classical scholars or Latin teachers, the “Application” of our forms of knowledge (Fink’s second category) is inseparable from the “Integration” of ours with others.

In my own teaching I’ve attempted to achieve this synthesis of knowledge, application, and integration by incorporating more criticism of contemporary culture into my courses as a way of showing students that a knowledge of antiquity gives them tools to analyze and understand their world: in my courses on rhetoric they perform analyses of contemporary advertising and politics using Aristotle’s categories, and in my Myth class they write blog posts in which they use their knowledge of the ideological work that myths did in ancient Greece to identify the often occluded stories underlying contemporary culture. Preparing the students to do these assignments requires that I skip some of the “foundational knowledge” I might have liked to include but in the end my students report that this assignment changed their thinking in ways they found valuable and I feel that I have made a meaningful contribution to their education.

These three forms of learning that Fink identifies helps us see the particular pedagogical challenge that we face in our upper division Latin and Greek courses.  These are very strong on “Application,” as I noted above, but, at least as traditionally taught, are almost devoid of “Integration.” I strongly believe that this lack is at least part of the reason why colleagues at every school I’m familiar with have a hard time getting students to continue the study of language beyond the introductory level: the learning we offer in upper division courses is not, to use Fink’s terminology, “Significant.” Introductory language courses are a different story: most don’t explicitly teach “Integration” (they should!) but many students nevertheless find themselves using their knowledge of Latin or Greek grammar and syntax to enrich their understanding of English vocabulary, syntax, and style (I’m confident we’d see more students in introductory courses if we taught this integration more explicitly). Once we begin reading texts, however, ways of “Integrating” this learning with other forms of knowledge become less obvious. We need to think about what the relevance of reading Vergil or Cicero in the original is to other forms of knowledge, and design classes that help our students make these connections.

Next month I’ll talk about the other three of Fink’s categories: “Human Dimension,” “Caring,” and “Learning How to Learn.” Especially the first two are easily mocked and are less obviously part of our work as Classical scholars, but we neglect them at our peril: we in the Humanities may have a harder time defining Application and Integration than our colleagues in other disciplines but it is in these areas that we should be light years ahead.

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