A teaching program where undergraduates lead other students in discussions and problem-solving workshops has been so successful that the National Science Foundation has awarded $2.3 million to spread word of its success. At the University of Rochester, one of a half-dozen institutions nationwide that have developed the program, the workshop idea is spreading across campus and is now used in several departments, including chemistry, physics, economics, and biology, largely because the students themselves have asked other teachers to adopt the idea.
The workshops are a team effort, with faculty members, learning specialists, and students working together to develop a new way to encourage students to become active partners in their education.
"Most traditional teaching structures put the faculty in the activist role and students in a passive role," says Chemistry Professor Jack Kampmeier, who along with Assistant Dean Vicki Roth has led implementation of the workshops at the University. "This project reverses the situation; students become the activists.
"The evidence is overwhelming that students learn by doing. We're social animals, and the whole process of learning is socially mediated. We've found a structure that brings these principles to life," he adds.
The NSF funds will be used to help make educators at other institutions aware of the program and to prepare materials for classroom use. The money will also support regional meetings where participants can exchange information and experiences, as well as publications, newsletters and guides to help train faculty members and students in the workshop model.
A portion of the funds slated for Rochester will go toward expanding a leader training program developed by Roth, who heads the Office of Learning Assistance Services. She has created a two-credit class where workshop leaders learn about group dynamics and how to guide the workshops; the class is a model for the training of peer leaders at institutions around the country. Next summer Roth will run a meeting at the University for faculty, students and staff from other institutions to discuss the training of leaders, who come from the ranks of students who have previously taken a course and done well.
"Command of the subject material is certainly part of being a workshop leader, but that's not enough. The leader also must be able to understand how other people learn, and they need to care about other students' success," says Roth. "These workshops are an attempt to systemize active participation by students in their education, to make sure that the students are drawn into really thinking about and discussing the material."
At Rochester, the workshops in the Department of Chemistry began five years ago through the leadership of Roth and Kampmeier. Since then the method has been adopted by professors in several departments.
The answer came in the form of workshops, structured study sessions in which small teams of students actively wrestle with the material and tackle complex problems together. Once a week, teams of six to eight students discuss and debate the material with the guidance of a peer who leads the discussion. The program was initially created by David K. Gosser Jr. of City College of New York and is now used at a variety of institutions, including liberal arts colleges and research universities. Students have embraced the program, and at nearly all institutions using workshops, the percentage of students successfully completing the course has gone up significantly, says Kampmeier, who earlier this year was recognized nationally for his work developing peer-led team learning.
Kampmeier notes that practicing scientists routinely meet in groups to discuss the latest research results. In the peer-led workshops, the undergraduates meet to discuss their understanding of the basics of fields like chemistry or biology. "Scientists construct their understanding by talking over the data, arguing and debating. We shouldn't deny that method of learning to our undergraduates," he says.