Learning and Emotion

In the following post, Barbara Craig, Senior Project Evaluator and Director of Assessment & Diversity at CNDLS, shares her thoughts on how learning and emotions intersect.

What discussions make the deepest impression on you?  Which conversations that you’ve had in the last six months do you remember most clearly?  Chances are there’s an element of emotion – maybe even strong emotion – in them.  You may have felt that you were totally engaged in those discussions, perhaps even arguments, not just intellectually but personally and emotionally as well.  Research suggests that a strong emotional response to a topic may actually allow us to engage more deeply and bring ourselves more fully into our thoughts about the topic.  Evidence from neuroscience shows that we learn new information more readily when we engage not only the thinking areas of our brains, but also the emotional centers (Zull, 2002).

As faculty members, most of us want our students to remember class discussions, not just for the factual content, but as interactions that encourage them to grapple with new ideas, difficult concepts, competing perspectives, or unexamined attitudes.  Many students see the classroom as a place for the head, not the heart; for facts, not opinions – or if opinions are allowed, only for those that are well-reasoned and based on objective evidence.  By the time they reach college, many students have learned to drop their personal views and life experiences at the classroom door.

So how might we make it more likely that our classroom discussions will engage students emotionally?  Experiential learning theory suggests that starting with learners’ concrete personal experience makes it easier for them to connect with theoretical concepts and other academic material (Kolb).  For example, faculty may be able to structure assignments that give students a wide choice of topics for research papers or group projects, allowing students to follow their personal interests or curiosity.  Where possible, illustrating disciplinary models or theories with concrete examples from students’ lives activates familiar schemata (for more, see this introduction to schema theory), and engages students’ emotions during lectures or class discussions.

Faculty and staff at Georgetown have been collaborating and experimenting with innovative ways to address the need to engage students on multiple levels – intellectual, personal, and emotional.  A successful cross-disciplinary example of this approach is the Engelhard Project, which integrates student health and wellness topics into the academic content of courses through the curriculum infusion method.   Students report finding these class discussions of health information both intellectually and emotionally engaging.

A second curriculum infusion project, focused on engaging difference respectfully, is starting this fall through the newly announced Doyle Fellowships.  Throughout their courses, Fellows will incorporate discussions focused on building empathy and connecting with the diversity of human experience.  Encouraging students to bring their personal identities and lived experiences into classroom discussions can help them to connect more deeply – on both an intellectual and an emotional level – with course material that then becomes more relevant to their daily lives.

Student Perspective on ePortfolios

In a post on the Georgetown University Digital Commons Labs blog, Kevin Donovan (SFS ’11), who is working at CNDLS this summer on the OpenCourseWare Initiative, shares his thoughts on creating an ePortfolio. Specifically, he discusses how this process differed from other projects he has done, and the impact it has had on his overall experience at Georgetown. Read Kevin’s post here.

CNDLS announces Georgetown OpenCourseWare Initiative

CNDLS is pleased to announce the pilot launch of the Georgetown OpenCourseWare Initiative.
OpenCourseWare (OCW) consists of high-quality educational materials made available freely online for students, faculty and self-learners around the world. These materials could range from syllabi and assignments to lecture videos and online presentations.

OCW started in 2002 at MIT and has since expanded to nearly 200 universities around the world.  In the United States, schools as varied as Yale, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame and the University of Michigan are already publishing OCW. Georgetown OCW will bring our unique educational focus and Jesuit identity to the community.

The small group of Georgetown OCW pilot courses currently available includes courses in the following departments: Computer Science, English, the School of Foreign Service, and Communication, Culture, & Technology.

For more information, please see the OpenCourseWare Initiative site. If you are a faculty member interested in contributing materials to OCW, please contact us at opencourseware@georgetown.edu.  Check back soon for more information on this developing project.

“Happiness Skills” and the Engelhard Project

In the following post, CNDLS Assistant Director for Assessment Mindy McWilliams reflects on how the goals of the Engelhard Project resonate with a recent study on predictors for a happy life:

One recent morning as I was grumbling over my second cup of coffee, I followed a Facebook link to the Atlantic article “What Makes Us Happy.” The article detailed a Harvard study that followed 268 male students for over 70 years in order to examine the question of what makes for a good and happy life. The simple answer, according to study director Dr. George Vaillant, may be love.  But Vaillant also identified seven major factors that predict healthy physical and psychological aging: education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, healthy weight, and a mature strategy for overcoming adversity and challenge.

These factors made me think immediately of our Engelhard Project, which integrates discussion about well-being and healthy behaviors into academic courses. Jim Sandefur in the Math Department, for example, crafts exercises where students model the effects of alcohol on the body, hoping that with new skills and information about how their bodies work, students will make more informed choices about drinking practices.

Is our Engelhard project, at its heart, perhaps about helping students to discover a pathway toward leading a happy life? What a different and interesting way to think about the education of our students – that we want them to graduate not only with highly developed critical thinking, analysis and writing abilities, but with practical skills that will enable them to lead happy, healthy and productive lives.

Given that premise, what would it look like to help students build these “happiness skills”?  I think it would look a lot like some of the courses currently taught by Engelhard Fellows.  Courses that create safe spaces for conversations that merge the personal and academic sides of topics such as sexual practices and sexual health, mental illness, and what it means to flourish in college and in life.  Courses where students are encouraged to explore their own behaviors and attitudes, and then build skills and find resources that help them change, all within the context of an academic course of study.

I suggest we challenge ourselves to add happiness to the set of skills we arm students with when they leave here. For who are we if not stewards of our students for a short time, as they journey along toward the people that they want to become?  And what better gift could we give them than skills that enable them to find happiness?

Spotlight on Teaching and Learning: Frank Ambrosio

In his course on Dante & the Christian Imagination, Frank Ambrosio (Philosophy) found it difficult to teach students to move beyond basic levels of interpretation and to relate Dante’s Divine Comedy to their own lives.

Inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts, Frank Ambrosio envisioned a digital version of Dante’s Divine Comedy which would allow students to create personalized annotated versions of the poem. As Ambrosio puts it, his goal is to “introduce Dante to a whole new generation of readers, in a way that makes Dante at home in our world and us at home in his.” With the help of CNDLS’ Eddie Maloney and Bill Garr, Director and Assistant Director for Research & Development, this project, known as MyDante, became a reality.

MyDante teaches contemplative reading through a combination of digital tools and pedagogical resources. The site acts as a guide through the Divine Comedy, leading readers through a cohesive interpretation of the text through commentaries by Ambrosio and other materials. It enables collaboration among students by providing a structured virtual space for discussion. At the same time, it makes the reading experience profoundly personal by allowing readers to create their own annotations, images, and reflective journal entries.

MyDante builds on Ambrosio’s commitment to convincing students that the texts they read are significant to their own lives. In class, Ambrosio helps to make Dante’s poem meaningful by relating it to poetry by Pablo Neruda, sculptures by Michelangelo, and the film Dead Man Walking. Students enjoy and remember Amrbosio’s teaching. In an anonymous course survey, one student called the course “perhaps the most personally relevant of any I’ve taken at Georgetown thus far.” Ambrosio has been selected by students to receive both the Edward Bunn and Dorothy Brown teaching awards.

Ambrosio is currently at work on a public version of MyDante, which will allow students, teachers, and researchers across the world to join a diverse interdisciplinary community of Dante readers.

Georgetown launches the Doyle Building Tolerance Initiative

Georgetown recently announced the launch of the Doyle Building Tolerance Initiative, a campus-wide initiative designed to promote intellectual engagement with the diversity of human experience. The Initiative, funded by a gift from alumnus William J. Doyle (’72), will be administered by CNDLS in partnership with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Georgetown College.  Building on the curriculum infusion approach used in the successful Engelhard Project, CNDLS will work with a small group of Doyle Faculty Fellows from a variety of disciplines to integrate into their courses topics that engage difference and build empathy and open-mindedness.  The fundamental goal of the Doyle Fellowships is to enable faculty to create inclusive pedagogies and diversified course content that will transform the teaching and learning experience for faculty and students in deep and varied ways.

In addition to the faculty fellowships, the Doyle Initiative will also sponsor lectures and workshops, host a Virtual Commons space where members of the Georgetown Community can discuss issues of tolerance and understanding, and extend three existing Berkley Center projects:  the Undergraduate Fellows, the Junior Year Abroad Network, and the Undergraduate Learning and Interreligious Understanding study of student attitudes towards religious diversity.

For more information about the Doyle Building Tolerance Initiative, see Georgetown’s press release and the CNDLS Doyle Initiative page.

Stay tuned for more updates on this innovative project.

Course Blogs as an Alternative to Blackboard

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young discusses the merits of course blogs as an alternative to the popular course management software Blackboard. For example, he cites the customizability of blogging software and the opportunity for students to learn how to use tools they might encounter outside the university setting as reasons that faculty and students might prefer blogs to Blackboard. The article also touches on some of the advantages and disadvantages of opening course blogs to public comment.

If you would like to explore some examples of blogs used in courses at Georgetown, please visit the Georgetown University Digital Commons.   If you are thinking about using a blog in your course, feel free to contact us to set up a consultation.

Student Work Highlighted at TLISI 2009

Several workshops at this year’s TLISI offered participants an inspiring view of innovative student work.

At the plenary session, Michael Wesch showed excerpts from videos created by students in his Digital Ethnography class and from a video of his introductory-level students acting out their “World Simulation.” You can see more of Wesch’s students work via his Netvibes portal, where you can see not only the final versions of the videos but also some record of the creative process, via earlier drafts, student blog posts, peer comments, etc.

In a workshop entitled “Student-Generated Digital Products: Unnatural Texts in the Natural Sciences,” science faculty presented multimedia projects created by their students for assignments which branch out from the traditional paper format. For example, Heidi Elmendorf challenged her Biology of Global Health students to design and produce 60-second video public service announcements about vaccination. She shared some comments in which students reflected on the difficulties not just of working with new technological tools but of creating projects for an audience (both the hypothetical audience of DC parents and the very real audience of their peers who would view the videos in class). In that session, participants also viewed videos created by Sarah Vittone’s students in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. For example, one group of students produced a video designed to orient patients’ families to the Intensive Care Unit. As the workshop facilitator Janet Russell pointed out, these assignments all challenge students to develop solutions to “real” problems and to translate their work to a broader audience than the professor or the other students in the class.
For more on this session, see Janet Russell’s blog post.

Representatives from Georgetown’s American Studies Program presented an intriguing group of student projects, and discussed how their program encourages work in nontraditional formats. For example, Michael Coventry shared student-created “digital stories” (short multimedia narratives, which can be viewed here along with other examples); Bernie Cook’s student Katie Jones presented her group’s documentary about Union Station (available here along with other documentaries from the American Civilization III class); and recent graduate Lauren Zelt described her senior thesis on the publisher Condé Nast which takes the form of a magazine.

In a panel on student-driven research, four enterprising students who have been involved with some incredible projects shared their perspectives on how this experience affects their learning both inside and outside the classroom. Brian Cook and Brian Kesten of the Student Commission for Unity , who devoted considerable time and effort to designing, distributing, and analyzing a large-scale campus survey, described their inspiration to work toward greater understanding of diversity issues on campus. As Cook explained, “we suffer for not having a dialogue in an intelligent space about these issues.”  Zack Bluestone and Matthew Smallcomb of the Telepresence Forum, a group that has used the resources of GU’s telepresence classroom to sustain conversations with students from SFS-Qatar, explained how valuable their exposure to a different perspective has been. All four students took pride in being part of these projects and agreed that these activities outside of the classroom have made their overall Georgetown learning experience more real and more meaningful. They felt that professors could do more to encourage this kind of work and to build connections between these projects and the classroom. (Check back soon for video highlights from this session.)

In all of these sessions, the level of the student projects that were showcased was striking, not just in terms of originality, but also in terms of academic engagement with the subjects. These very different projects offer inspiration for faculty looking for new ways to spark creative and meaningful student work.

Two New Videos Feature CNDLS’ Engelhard Project

“The courses that I’m going to most remember are my Engelhard courses, and the faculty I’m going to stay in touch with are those professors who taught those classes. For me, the reason those courses were different was because I didn’t feel that I was necessarily just getting a degree, but that I was getting a Georgetown education.” — Sarah Jones, student

The Engelhard Project connects academic learning to life outside the classroom through a curriculum infusion approach. Engelhard faculty fellows link course content with wellness topics through readings, discussions led by campus health professionals, and reflective writing assignments.

Two new CNDLS-produced videos, “The Engelhard Project” and “Engelhard: the Student Experience,” take you deeper into the principles behind curriculum infusion through case studies, student interviews, and faculty spotlights. Head over the the Engelhard page to watch them both!

Engaging students in political theory

Why are students in the School of Foreign Service talking about Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley? Anthony Clark Arend, Professor of Government and Foreign Service, casts rock musicians as characters in the hypothetical political scenarios he asks his students to discuss in class. This unexpected tactic draws students into the discussions and makes the theories behind the scenarios more memorable. This strategy follows Arend’s overall aim to motivate students by engaging them as peers and sharing his passion for the subject.

Listen to an interview with Arend on the Georgetown University Forum here.