Dr. Jason Osborne is an experienced senior leader in higher education. He is currently the Special Assistant to the President at Miami University, and the former Miami University Provost. Speaking on his experience in HE education delivery (including his work at the Miami Faculty) Jason Osborne gives his insight on how we can support our faculty to more effectively engage students.
Recently, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of beginning to play the piano. I tend to be a “hands-on” learner, meaning that I can watch someone demonstrate a technique or read instructions, but I don’t feel like I have learned it until I go and do it myself- often repeatedly, and often with some failure and practice cycles. I suspect many of you can relate to this perspective. Anyone who has learned a sport, an instrument, or a skill like driving an automobile will be familiar with the active engagement needed to master new skills or understandings, how important it is to have someone mentor you as you develop, and how motivation can wax and wane over time. All of this is called “engaged” or “active” leaning, to contrast it with the more classic educational model of a classroom where we expect students to sit quietly, listen to the teacher, memorize, then regurgitate information onto a test, and just carry on with normal academic affairs.
Take a moment to think about something you would like to learn in the next few weeks, whether it is a new sport, cooking technique, something handy around the home, or a skill at work. What appeals to you about learning that new skill, how do you want to feel while you learn it, and what actions or activities might support your learning? I bet that you have some personal interest in learning your new skill- whether because you thought it would be enjoyable, profitable, or you thought it was important for you to know how to do a certain thing. I also bet that the steps you might take to master this skill would require you to be actively engaged- in other words, to actively construct understandings, identify uncertainties, practice and model behaviors from those more expert than you, fail and repeat actions until you are successful, and then to refresh your memory and re-learn things you forget. These are some of the hallmarks of engaged or active learning- something we naturally gravitate toward outside formal learning settings like classrooms.
Imagine getting your driver’s license after listening to weeks of lectures and taking a multiple choice test on driving, having never spent time behind the wheel being mentored by someone more expert? Imagine learning agriculture without having stepped onto a farm, business never having interned in a company, medicine without ever interacted with a patient. Most of us would find these ideas absurd, but historically, classroom instruction has been exactly this: passive, unengaged, and inauthentic. In recent decades, there has been a movement in educational psychology and many other fields to bring more active and engaged learning into classrooms because we know that is how we as human beings best learn, remember, and later apply their learning. Not only are actively engaged students are more likely to be successful in the classroom, but they will also feel more satisfied and positive about their learning, and some forms of engaged learning can help set them up for lifelong success and a very bright future.
And it’s not just about the students - while engaged learning can take significant time and effort to implement successfully, for many educators there is nothing more satisfying than to mentor interested, engaged, motivated students while they learn and develop their expertise. Yet with the many stressors and competing demands faculty now face, we as leaders must help faculty members appreciate the importance of a more engaged and active classroom environment, and support faculty as they develop new classes and new degree programs, as well as their professional skills as scholars and teachers. In other words, we as leaders have to make sure we are appropriately supporting our faculty to adopt high-impact practices in the classroom and in identifying and adopting world class research methods in their scholarship.
Engaged learning is a broad term encompassing a broad class of activities that encourage students to actively process and more deeply engage course material, which has been shown to lead to enhanced learning and often, more enjoyment. Active or engaged learning is essentially anything that motivates students to think about, process, and/or remember information. To do this, students have to expend energy on this activity (rather than on other competing demands), and focus attention. Engaged learning activities can range from “one-minute essays,” practicing new skills in the lab or field, or hands-on class activities including service learning, practica, industry internships, student research, or study abroad. There are many resources for faculty interested in exploring new directions in this area (e.g., Harvard Business Publishing; Educause; Vanderbilt), and your campus teaching center probably has professional development resources readily available.
While educators have been talking about engaged learning strategies in academic affairs for decades, recent pandemic experiences have brought a renewed emphasis and new innovations in creating an engaging learning experience for students.
Learning and education is a complicated ecosystem involving individual and environmental dynamics. According to modern psychological theories, like Brett Jones’ MUSIC model of motivation, faculty can enhance student motivation by helping students:
Not only do these ideas make sense if we reflect on our own experiences, but there is a robust body of research supporting each of these factors in driving well-deserved success for students. Active or engaged learning principles help students clearly connect course material to their lived experience in particular domains or topics they care about, can help them feel more interested and motivated, and be willing to take more “educational risks” in class- like asking or answering a question, taking on extra work, or signing up for more advanced courses.
These models also can guide administrators in academic leadership roles in thinking about how to support faculty efforts by highlighting opportunities to support engaged learning- which often requires resources or infrastructure.
Understanding the benefits of active, engaged learning for students and faculty, we as Provost, Dean, or other academic leaders can be instrumental in supporting the adoption and implementation of these high-impact practices.
Adopting new teaching practices, as mentioned above, takes TIME and ENERGY from our faculty- two resources that can be in short supply these days. We cannot expect faculty members to always “do more with less,” but rather we can signal this is a mission-critical priority if we provide support and resources to achieve this goal as part of a strategic plan. We must help faculty find the time to focus on these important, mission centric, actions. I recommend asking your faculty what would help them the most- some of the resources we offered included course releases, summer support, materials, software, business analytics, teaching assistants, co-teaching or team teaching opportunities, travel to educational conferences, and modern research methods., Modest investments like these can signal that you really value teaching and will surely provide significant return on investment to your graduate school and the students you serve through enhanced faculty and student satisfaction, success and retention, which can provide additional budgetary benefits from this faculty and student retention and success.
Jason W Osborne is an experienced senior leader and faculty member in higher education (HE). He is currently Special Assistant to the President at Miami University, having previously served as Miami University Provost. Jason has also led HE faculties and has served as Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Provost for Graduate Education at Clemson University, as Department Chair at Clemson University, the University of Louisville, as a graduate program coordinator at North Carolina State University and Old Dominion University, and was a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma and Niagara County Community College. Jason also worked as a researcher at the University of Buffalo Medical School.
Alongside his work at Miami University, Jason W Osborne is a successful author in statistics and quantitative research methods. He has authored a number of books in statistics, linear regression, practical assessment, exploratory factor analysis, data analysis, data cleaning, and business analytics. He is proudly part of the American Statistical Association as an Accredited Professional Statistician. Osborne’s work has been cited over 36,000 times by scholars and practitioners around the world (he is in the top 2% of cited scholars in the US and a national leader in writing about applied statistics and quantitative methods).
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