Working Towards Common Inquiry

January 15, 2009

One of the exciting aspects emerging from this view of posters is an area of similar intentions. We saw and grouped many of the posters in terms of their intended focus of work—from the effectiveness of new technology on learning a core-concept to developing new ways to communicate with students. This was often best reflected in the possible outcomes for the work itself. Some faculty may develop useful grading rubrics for new kinds of multimedia assignments while others may create rubrics based on an understanding of students’ intellectual development within a new medium. The three broad areas which we are using to organize the posters include:

  • Faculty developing new sorts of student assignments—assignments that couldn’t have been done without technology.
  • Faculty investigating the different stages of student work.
  • Faculty investigating the impact of new communications technologies on face to face class discussions.

New Sorts of Assignments

The activity of developing new sorts of student assignments sparks many sub-questions and issues: how to evaluate this technology-based work, how to incorporate teaching and learning about the technology into the class, and how to understand the impact of the technology. And as faculty members begin to ask and provide possible answers to these questions, project outcomes could include:

  • Criteria for assessing different aspects of student work
  • Assessment of effectiveness of new sorts of assignments for developing and providing evidence of student learning.

Evaluating Student Work

As faculty members begin to create new kinds of assignments, they are faced with new sorts of challenges—one being how to evaluate students’ work. Viet Nguyen (University of Southern California, English) and Gilbert Neri (CSU, Monterey Bay, Visual and Public Art) identify critical and creative talents as two key areas that need to be considered when assessing, evaluating or teaching with multiple forms of media. Alice Gambrell (University of Southern California, English) will also likely think about similar issues as she reflects on how the creation of different forms of media—websites, comic strips, and computer games—effects and shapes students’ arguments. She “will ask students to produce arguments in two (or perhaps three) different media, and then to consider the extent to which the distinct media enhanced or inhibited the quality of their presentations.” Implicit in this activity is an attempt to evaluate the quality of an argument in a new form.

Making Connections to a Discipline

A central focus of developing these assignments is linking the new technology-based task with a core activity of a discipline. And a lesson about making connections among technology, student learning, and teaching emerges from the posters, which vary in approach. Looking across posters we see a rich array of possibilities for conveying enduring lessons to students through technology: on-line archives, creation of web-sites, web-based letter writing, internet-based research, and more. And within each poster we see a variety of ways the approaches can be combined to give a fuller picture of the efficacy of technology in the humanities and in interdisciplinary fields.

Wyn Kelly (MIT, Literature/Comparative Media Studies), for example, wants to promote close, analytical reading through the discipline of English. To this end, she is developing an archive and database of images, music, and film clips that students can use to annotate a single chapter from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. This archive, used as a resource for traditional annotations, will provide for students one place from which to draw multiple resources in different mediums and to creatively comment on printed text. Like Gambrell, Neri, and Nguyen, Kelly will likely develop a way to assess how accurately and creatively her students use the archive.

Avenues for Understanding Culture

Other scholars are investigating the impact of the technology on their subject matter, and a few are looking at how the internet may provide an avenue for understanding culture. Melinda de Jesus (Arizona State University, Asian American Studies) and Amilcar Shabazz (University of Alabama, African American Studies) consider whether the internet can provide a viable entry into understanding the cultures of people of color in the US. Specifically, Shabazz is considering whether and how using/working with the internet may help students develop critical thinking within the interdisciplinary field of African American studies. His students will critique and collaboratively create web-sites. As they do this, Shabazz will be faced with trying to understand if and how well web-sites reflect the kind of critical thinking he desires. In other words, how effective is web-site creation in providing evidence that his students have learned a particular skill?

Over the next few months VKP scholars will discuss, debate, and confer on emerging issues such as these. They will use student work to try to understand the effectiveness of their learning activities and to clarify their own expectations. We can imagine various outcomes from such conversations—all as varied as the posters and projects themselves.

Faculty investigating stages of student work

There are a number of VKP scholars who have focused their projects on trying to “capture people in the act of…thinking” or on understanding the stages students follow as they learn a new concept, skill, or attitude. As Maxine Green explains, such instructors are concerned with “the process of coming to know, or on ‘knowing how’….” This set of VKP scholars have focused their research projects on exactly how students come to perform or think as an expert, to master a disciplinary skill, or to adapt more efficient learning behaviors. They are keen either to identify the different behavioral stages through which one moves in the development from novice to expert or of finding ways to model these behaviors for students. They have asked such questions as:

  • How do I identify intermediary learning stages involved in understanding this concept?
  • What happens when students encounter this particular stage of learning?
  • Which stage of learning X confounds students?
  • How can I model expert behavior in my discipline?

The expert

Some of these VKP researchers are interested in tracking the movement from novice to expert (expert-like) within a given discipline. Certainly, what differentiates novice from expert in different disciplines vary in terms of specific knowledge and skill but essentially all “experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information…” and they organize their knowledge, affecting their ability to reason and solve problems (How People Learn, 19).. Experts recognize patterns of meaningful information, know how much and when to retrieve particular bits of information, and then appropriately apply this knowledge.

VKP scholars are finding ways to track this movement from novice to expert. They will follow students’ paths, in order to identify the stages students travel to ultimately acquire a desired learning outcome. For example, Melissa Smith of Youngstown State University has identified two moments of difficulty for novice learners of a second language. She noticed that novices find it difficult to view “language as a SYSTEM, and dealing with the METALANGUAGE used to describe this system.” After students take an introductory course in which they are made aware of these aspects, she plans to periodically interview them, following their performance in her university’s foreign language sequence of courses. Her findings could lead to the development of a model that explains the process of learning a foreign language.

Georgetown’s Leona Fisher also plans to track students. In the context of her English course, she will watch students as they move from less to more independent and critical thinking. She will follow students as they acquire skills and self-confidence around three parts of her course goals; this, in order to understand how she can improve their capacity to be independent, critical thinkers in other university courses. She could very well develop a developmental model which explains how students learn critical thinking.

Focusing on a Particular Stage

While the two scholars above seek to understand the evolution of some kind of understanding, others are closely looking at and trying to understand a particular stage in which students engage as they learn a discipline-specific activity. This set of researchers often has identified distinct stages of learning and often want to be able to more carefully define or intervene in one or more of these stages.

Paula Berggren of CUNY has developed a set of activities which provides a scaffold for students to come to deeper understanding of the performing arts. She thus has identified some steps students must take to comprehend the meaning of a given performance. As part of her VKP project, she is using an electronic discussion tool to make visible the development of students’ learning as they move through the course. She is keen to understand students’ latent misconceptions at various stages.

Similarly, CUNY’s David Jaffee has recognized the expert activity he wants to unpack, namely, the act of putting together and moving among visual, written, and literary sources to tell the story of the past. Ultimately, he wants to understand the relationship between visual and historical understanding. Jaffee has traced students’ movements and understanding among various forms of historical evidence by monitoring discussion postings on a Blackboard site. Jaffee also has conducted interviews and think alouds in order to more clearly understand the process of student thinking.

Millersville’s John Ward emphasizes the need for student teachers to reflect on their craft. He recognized that students reflect at different levels, each of which needed to be understood and classified. In his VKP project, he developed a rubric that will help him assess student reflections in order to help students use their reflections to improve their teaching.

Modeling Behavior

Other scholars have identified some aspect of expert behavior and strive to find effective ways of modeling these activities. One way of modeling the behavior has been to make it visible to students as they work. Martha Pallante of Youngstown State and Patricia O’Connor of Georgetown both take on this task.

Martha Pallante would like to understand how the process of critical thinking can be made more visible to students. In order to show this, she has developed a set of learning modules which offer chunks of this process to her students. Pallante’s questions are similar to those of her Youngstown colleague Sherry Linkon, who designed a set of modules which help students more clearly see the process of interdisciplinary thinking.

O’Connor, a professor of literature, ultimately wants her students to closely read texts. She has identified four ways of analyzing this kind of reading and, through new media, has students model these behaviors for themselves. Specifically, she would like to encourage students’ abilities to make connections among concepts they read and the lives they lead. She thus designed a culminating, web-based project in which students must make significant links among texts in the class, cultural contexts, and relevant definitions. This process requires her students to “slow down” and begin to see how close reading allows for greater understanding between the reader and the text. They hopefully will carry this skill into other classes and activities.

Triad Talks

The set of researchers briefly described here represent a host of scholars interested in understanding how students come to know. They are beginning to work collaboratively with other VKP scholars through conversations with two other scholars. These conversations, called “triad talks,” serve as a means for scholars to discuss their investigations and questions about what they are finding and as a means to build our collective knowledge. Soon, all VKP researchers will be involved in these conversations.  Read more about these conversations through Sherry Linkon’s reflections.

  1. All students can participate, unlike class or chat where only one student can speak at a time.
  2. Students have more time to choose topics and answer questions that interest them.
  3. Students have more time to formulate and express their ideas.
  4. Students have more flexibility in daily and weekly scheduling to manage their study time.
  5. The instructor can respond more directly and personally to individual students, groups, or the class.
  6. The instructor has time and flexibility to prepare responses to student inquiries and discussion points.

However, most VKP scholars have not been complacent with accepting these benefits at face value. They understand that although the intent may be one thing, the way that activities are completed and knowledge is used may be quite another. Scholars have thus begun asking questions about the utility and effectiveness of new communication technologies as they relate to student learning.

VKP faculty are exploring

  • Online Collaboration
  • The Impact of New Technologies on In-Class Activities

Online Collaboration

Some faculty members are interested specifically in collaboration fostered by new communication technologies. They appreciate the benefits of student collaboration and are curious about not only how students collaborate, but how new communications technologies make this process visible. Their aim is to help students see and replicate the best discussion experience. This kind of project implies the need to understand and assess the kinds of collaboration students engage in.

Edward Tang (University of Alabama) is one scholar who would like to “see” how students interact on line. Ed would like to improve his students’ analytical skills and would like to understand the role of online discussion in fostering such growth. Specifically, he has focused his VKP research on “examin[ing] how students’ online interaction with the course material and with each other on discussion boards helps in developing their analytical skills in thinking and writing.” He sees online discussion as a collective and public experience through which students can push one another’s thinking, and, in turn, improve individual capacities for analysis. In order to understand students’ interactions, he tracked and has begun exploring the quality of student responses on discussion boards.

The Impact of New Technologies on In-Class Activities

Other VKP participants are looking at how technology affects in-class discussions and assignments. For example, faculty are asking the question: “how does a preliminary on-line activity change or improve a later in-class discussion or assignment?” Participants are examining student work in order to develop models for both understanding the relationship between on-line activity and individual students’ final products, as well as determining a means of assessing all parts of their students’ work.

Gail Green-Anderson (LaGCC) has been exploring the role of discussion boards and student writing. She has found that “the electronic Discussion Board helps students maintain and develop voice through dynamic exchanges with classmates.” She noticed that the pre-writing activities on a discussion board “invigorate writing assignments that encourage students to write in the first-person.” She is now asking, among other things, “How does use of the Discussion Board, as part of the pre-writing process, contribute to strong first-person writing?” In other words, what new forms of collaboration are taking place and how can one use this to inform student learning?


Questions about the role and use of communications tools raise many issues and possible outcomes for VKP scholars. Not only must faculty members consider issues of time management and carefully structured assignments, they also must think about new ways to assess new forms of collaboration and its impact on their pedagogy. They eventually will develop new models for determining the effectiveness of certain kinds of online assignments.

Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

Bransford, John D. Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking, Eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999).

By Cheryl Richardson
Orginially published in three installments November 2002 – July 2003

Assessment, Discussion, Project Themes, Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, Social Pedagogies Comments (0)

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