Innovations in the Classroom

Lots of good stuff in the new issue of Wesleyan magazine. Charles Salas’ essay on pedagogical innovation makes clear that at Wes there is a great tradition of wanting “to create as much space as possible for humane interactions among faculty and students.” Going back to the creation of interdisciplinary colleges created in the 1950s under President Victor Butterfield, Salas shows how the Wesleyan campus has been a fertile ground for experimenting to create the most effective forms of liberal education.

I was particularly interested in the section of the article on Project Based Learning (PBL). Salas gives an account of how Profs. Michael Weir and Ruth Johnson in Biology have developed new strategies for teaching aimed at improving learning and reducing attrition in the sciences, and he talks with Prof. Jan Naegele about support for this kind of work at Wesleyan:

Project-based Learning (PBL) is also at the heart of Professor Psyche Loui’s courses in psychology. Her Advanced Research Methods Course in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience is entirely PBL. After reviewing the latest studies in auditory cognitive neuroscience—especially with respect to speech and music—students design and implement their own group project. One such project, using music to help people with epilepsy, led to a publication. So did a project looking at how rhythm affects the way music and language are processed in the brain. Loui remembers with some amusement and not a little fondness when one student (a rapper, she discovered) started rapping in the middle of class discussion to demonstrate a point. She loves it when students apply scientific insights to their own life. And she and her students are not the only ones to love that. Last month the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania awarded Loui a $200,000 grant to use brain studies to explore the mental trajectories of aesthetic imagination and creativity in jazz improvisation.

Wesleyan’s mission statement describes the education it seeks to offer as “characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.” The word “boldness” is meant to signal openness to pedagogical innovation, and the term “practical idealism” points to the ability of students to translate what they learn in addressing real world problems, be it creating an online community for amputees or music that helps epileptics. Wesleyan is interested in doing more with PBL, which often results in greater engagement on the part of students, deeper understanding of concepts, and improved collaborative and communications skills.

“In biology, computer science, mathematics, and physics,” notes Naegele, “PBL is also encouraging the participation of more women and minority students.” Major national foundations, impressed with what the university has been doing so far, have proved eager to help, awarding Wesleyan with grants to promote (and assess) PBL across the curriculum. This includes support for pedagogical workshops and either course relief or course overload pay for faculty who want to create PBL courses.

Whether in Project Based work, interdisciplinary colleges or blended learning with flipped classrooms, pedagogical innovation is alive and well at Wesleyan!