A Choice in the Matter?

Two weeks ago, I attended the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy (CHEP) at the Inn at Virginia Tech, sponsored by the VT Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER). Attending the conference refreshed my thinking about my teaching strategies, so some of my next posts will be reflections on lectures from the conference.

On the first day of the conference, I attended a seminar by Timothy Baird, Ashley Lewis, and Shelli Fowler, all of VT. The subject was “Pink Time,” named after the book Drive by Daniel H. Pink. The premise was that during three classes throughout the semester, Baird’s geography class didn’t meet. Instead, he told students to create a project, preferably somehow related to the class’s topic (sustainability), grade themselves, and give a 2-minute report to the class on what they did. Baird’s rationale was that content in his area is constantly changing, but teaching his students to connect with the community and research something personal to them would be a timeless lesson. Baird described his goals of the class as 1) knowing yourself and what you like 2) learning something related to the class 3) teaching a new idea to the class and 4) assessing your learning.

Baird’s qualitative analysis found three main groups of projects – academic, creative, and experiential topics. At the beginning of class, students who did academic projects, such as reading a book or attending a lecture, graded themselves higher than other students. Throughout the course of the class, Baird increasingly encouraged creative and experiential projects, which was reflected in the data.

I liked that this approach was unorthodox, and tried to meet the students where they are. Baird specifically challenged his students to do something that was not related to their personal life or their major. I work off the opposite theory – that making my curriculum relevant to my students will improve their comprehension of and memory for the content. Many psychology majors plan to enter diverse fields such as dentistry, physical therapy, nursing, law, and forensics, so I struggle to balance enjoyable assignments that still relate to my class content. As a possible solution, my current students must choose 4 Mini Projects out of 9 choices*. Having the choice to complete projects that they relate to may help them connect to my class content, more than if it was something I assigned to them with no choice in the matter.

What do you think – is it important to give students freedom to choose their assignments or topics? Does this invite students to slack off? Will quality suffer? By the end of the semester, I hope to have a better answer to these questions.

*Mini Project examples: review a scientific article, watch a TED talk, discuss a mental illness in greater depth, talk to someone in a career related to abnormal psychology

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