My least favorite class of all time – high school geography – started and stopped with rote memorization. I resolved never to take another geography class again, certain that it was the dullest subject in existence. Now, as a geographer and university instructor, I seek instead to cultivate what L. Dee Fink calls “significant learning experiences”. These are transformative encounters that connect students with content in ways that excite and empower them to participate in knowledge-building, which I develop through four key pedagogical moments.
First, I cultivate an inclusive classroom by giving students opportunities to share power and control over the learning process. On day one, regardless of class size, we generate a list of criteria for the best and worst classroom cultures students have experienced, making separate lists for teacher and student behaviors. Together we synthesize these lists into an actionable class policy for the students and myself as we move forward. I have also experimented with unusual course structures to facilitate greater student autonomy and control. For instance, students in my survey-level Environment and Society course choose assignments from a curated selection and set their own grade percentages. In larger classes where grading a large volume of assignments is not feasible, students choose between a test track or a research project track.
Similarly, I use active learning methods to support diverse learning preferences. For instance, students may keep an online photo diary of key concepts over the course. Students share pictures with a written description of how the image illustrates the concept and relates to their life. This approach engages students who prefer visual and/or experiential learning, provides a medium-stakes outlet to practice academic writing, and supports critical thinking as students apply foundational concepts to their day-to-day lives. When grading small assignments is not feasible due to class size, I employ Top Hat software to facilitate in-class engagement by building in mini-quizzes and written response prompts each day to stimulate and structure in-class participation.
Third, I structure what Ken Bain calls a natural critical learning environment where students engage real-world, authentic tasks that require deep analytical thinking, effective communication, and critical self-assessment. For instance, students complete a Climate Change Symposium capstone project in the style of an international Conference of Parties meeting. They work in groups to develop and present actionable climate change policies across local and international scales from diverse political perspectives. Scaffolded project stages (e.g. division of labor plans and timelines, guided assessments, annotated bibliographies), require students to hone proficiencies in time management, team-based logistics, verbal and written communication, and critical analysis.
The Climate Change Symposium is also an opportunity for students to provide and respond to constructive feedback. In another example, students complete an annotated bibliography on an environmental topic of their choice. In class, I provide students with sample annotations drawn from previous students’ assignments, illustrating a range of quality. Together, we grade these annotations and generate a list of grading criteria for the project. Students may also complete structured peer evaluations of their work with a partner, and/or revise their final draft in response to formative feedback from me. Additionally, I provide multiple opportunities for students to submit their own formative feedback for me, such as a mid-semester class evaluation.
Students are not ‘empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with content provided in class to be memorized and recited. They arrive in class with a wealth of lived experiences and knowledge. My goal is to introduce course material in ways that build from students’ previous experiences. By bringing together the pedagogical moments outlined above, I aim for students to feel respected and valued for their contributions, and to become active, empowered partners in the classroom.