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Tapping Student Experience

 What follows is a book chapter published by the University of Wyoming (Laramie, Wyoming). It appears in The Ellbogen Experience: Essays on Teaching by Award-Winning University of Wyoming Faculty, edited by J. K. Wangberg and J. V. Nelson, 2000, (pp. 67-82).

Finding New Ways To Tap Student Experience

Michael Day, Professor of Adult Education, University of Wyoming

Because I am an educator steeped in the tradition of adult education, progressive views of learning and teaching significantly influence my approach to university teaching. Essential to such views is the belief that student learning, not content delivery, is central to classroom instruction, that learning is a vital component of growth, that growth is both natural and necessary, and that the primary building block of all new learning is past experience.

But try as I might to incorporate these beliefs into my university teaching I was often dissatisfied with the results. This essay examines some reasons for this discontent and relates an epiphany of sorts that led me to reexamine the role of experience in learning. The essay concludes with a few instructional strategies that, I feel, successfully tap student experience and enhance their learning.

Educational Roots

My roots as a teacher can be traced back to the progressive ideas of John Dewey – perhaps the most challenging educational theorist of this century. Dewey viewed learning as a natural occurrence. Humans shared a kinship with other living organisms, Dewey assumed, and, like other species, are guided by basic survival principles. Within such a view, survival necessitates mastery and initiates both exploration and learning. Thus, in addition to being natural, learning is also pragmatic, i.e., conducted to achieve some significant and useful end. Dewey believed the dynamics involved in everyday learning are the same as in classroom learning — for teaching to turn out well, students’ prior experiences need to be connected to subject matter in meaningful ways.

Building upon Dewey’s core beliefs, Eduard Lindeman, in the Meaning of Adult Education (published in 1926) articulated a set of guiding propositions for teachers of mature (adult) students, beliefs that continue to guide the practice of many adult educators. Echoing Dewey, Lindeman suggested 1) that education be viewed as life, not a preparation for some unknown future; 2) that educators focus their curriculum on real life situations (problems) not subjects; and 3) that “the resource of highest value in adult education (was) the learner’s experience (Lindeman’s emphasis).” For Lindeman as well as for those who applied his assumptions to classroom teaching, the methodology of choice was group discussion:

Small groups of aspiring adults who desire to keep their minds fresh and vigorous; who begin to learn by confronting pertinent situations; who dig down into the reservoirs of their     experience before resorting to texts and secondary facts; who are led in discussion by teachers who are also searchers after wisdom and not oracles: this constitutes the setting for adult education, the modern quest for life’s meaning.

Expanding the propositions and extending the applications of progressive education tenets to more modern times, other adult education theorists such as K. Patricia Cross and Malcolm Knowles, continued to emphasize the significance of student experience in learning and the appropriateness of group interaction or group discussion as a guiding instructional method. It was this reverence for student experience and group discussion that guided my earliest teaching at UW.

Dissatisfaction with Group Discussion

Because I believe in the above precepts about student learning, when I began teaching at the University of Wyoming I relied heavily upon group discussion. Like Dewey and Lindeman, I believed that students brought rich backgrounds to the classroom and that learning occurred only when subject matter was connected to their previous experience. I also believed course content was only a vehicle for students to better comprehend their own humanity and their own unique relationship to their time and place and to others. But though I accepted the premises of this student-centered approach to instruction, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my reliance on group discussion as a primary method of instruction.

First, each semester some students were uneasy with the seemingly lack of structure and the stress on group work surrounding discussion, at least as I was using it. Often they desired less time discussing issues with each other and more time with me telling them what they should learn. They desired or expected lectures and viewed conversing with other students as a wasting of valuable class time.

In addition, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my own silence in our group discussions. Not wishing to impose my beliefs on the group, I often suppressed my views.  Instead, I focused on facilitation, observation, and exploration. I viewed my role both as climate setter and examiner. As climate setter, I attempted to establish a classroom setting where students felt at ease; as examiner, I attempted to “stretch” and explore student views for depth, meaning, and connections. Therefore, in a typical discussion, I oversaw process, attempted to model sensitivity and acceptance of diverse views, and probed for understandings. But, my own opinions and passions, my own experiences with the subject, often went unspoken.

Finally, increasingly I found myself wrestling with course objectives. Though generally pleased with the process dimensions of my classes (i.e., students seemed to recognize that learning depended upon their own effort), I was not satisfied with the content mastered in the lessons. True, I had made the decision that content was secondary to student growth and that subject matter was but a tool for students to increase confidence in their ability to learn, grow, and connect to their world. But, I did feel there was significant enough meaning to the content of my field of study to warrant more attention to particular themes and concepts. Based on my own experiences, I felt there were specific ideas students should know something about to grow as skillful educators.

My discomfort led to experimentation.  For example, I tried, learning contracts, which allowed students to individualize class content and evaluation; they negotiated the focus, materials, and evaluation of their learning. But I found myself overly directive in the design of the contracts and without both the time and variety of resources necessary to successfully individualize each student’s learning experience. I tried lecturing more. This too was unsatisfactory. I did not enjoy the often-passive state of my students and did not particularly care for the seemingly endless drone of my own voice. Then I was introduced to an instructional strategy that was dynamic, engaging, and sound. It respected both learner and subject — bridging the past experience of my students with new course material. I also reread Dewey’s 1936 publication, Experience and Education, and gained a new appreciation for his views.

New Insights

I cannot remember who first introduced me to the work of Bernice McCarthy, but my approach to instruction was truly transformed because of her. McCarthy was one of many theorists in the 1980s who believed individuals learn differently. Students, she felt, do not perceive and process learning material in the same way. McCarthy was a pioneer in the application of “learning style” differences to classroom instruction. Like others, McCarthy believed learning style differences clustered around four groupings. She labeled her groupings as innovative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic. Innovative learners, for McCarthy, perceive experience and information concretely and process it reflectively; analytic learners perceive experience and information abstractly and process it reflectively; common sense learners perceive experience and information abstractly and process it actively; and, dynamic learners  perceive experience and information concretely and process it actively. To illustrate her groupings, I draw upon my experiences as both a ski instructor and a university teacher. In a skiing lesson, learning types, though they may seem rather caricatured here, are easily distinguished. In a university class, students may seem more homogeneous in their learning styles than a group of beginning skiers but their learning differences are discernable as well, if we observe them closely. Before going on, I give two caveats regarding learning styles. First, though the discussion may seem to suggest that learning patterns cluster around one of the above four styles, many of us are composites of several styles. Second, our approach to learning may certainly seem content specific at times, i.e., a certain learning task necessitates a specific approach

For a moment, imagine a small group of adults about to begin their first downhill skiing lesson. Inevitably, even in a small group of six to eight students, there are individuals representing each of McCarthy’s four groups. The innovative types seem to be seeking a concrete context for the lesson. These learners are likely examining and reflecting upon the strange equipment/tools of skiing, the slope of the hillside, clothing, lifts, etc., and are freely directing their inquiry at both the instructor and at the other participants. In their attempt to connect this new experience with past experiences, they tend to ask lots of questions; they are outgoing and quite social. Analytic types, unlike the innovative learners, ask fewer contextual questions but, sponge-like, seem to absorb information. Often quiet, attentive, contemplative, and respectful, these learners are usually very good listeners and seem to “think through” the dynamics of each segment of the lesson. No wonder we so enjoy having analytic-type learners in our classes; they provide us with scores of teacher-pleasing behaviors.

The next two types are more solitary learners. I identify strongly with these two types, especially the last one. Common sense learners are much more “active” and less social in their learning; they seem to blend focused listening with engagement. While some others in the class seek context or new information, these learners seek application, i.e., they quickly attach skis to their boots and get “a feel” for whatever has been suggested. They are the doers. The final group, the dynamic types, are often a teacher’s nightmare. These are the divergent thinkers, the “what if” students, the risk takers. Seemingly bored, though often highly curious, these learners seem to learn best when they take charge of their own learning. Thus, in a beginning ski lesson, dynamic learners tend to be impatient and easily distracted; their behavior tends to be highly unpredictable.

The learning types I’ve illustrated on the ski slopes are certainly apparent in my classes. Inevitably there are the innovative learners, asking contextual questions: Why are we learning this?  Will this be on the test? They learn best when subject matter has meaning and relevance and is connected to past experience. In addition, they tend to comfortably socialize with others and enjoy group activities. In my earlier classes at the University of Wyoming, these types of students likely enjoyed the emphasis on group discussion because they were able to interact. The analytic learners, who often sit in the front of the classroom, tend to focus on what I, the teacher, have to say about the subject. They also appreciate a more formal class structure, take copious notes, and enjoy lectures. Unlike the innovative type, these students were likely displeased with my earlier emphasis on group discussion; they desired more of me and less of each other. The common sense learners are scattered throughout the classroom and comfortably separated, to the degree possible, from each other. Often patient listeners for a time, they become clearly restless if too much information is provided. They work best if new ideas are allowed to jell and they can work with them, ideally in an active, engaging way. They tended to be most uncomfortable with my emphasis on group discussion; they were less social and received fewer “chunks” of material to process and work with. Finally, there are dynamic learners. Not surprisingly, fewer are successful in the structured learning environments of our secondary schools so fewer are found in our university classrooms, but the resilient are there. These students simply seem different.  They tend to challenge me the most and tend to be the most distant. They often sit as far away from the teacher as possible and tend to drift in and out of a lesson. Again, their behavior is unpredictable but their insights often surprise and astound. When interested and engaged these students thrived in my group discussion classes, especially if divergent views were encouraged; that’s how they seemed to learn best.

As far as applying her beliefs about learning styles to classroom teaching, McCarthy found that each learning style reacts differently to classroom methodology, i.e., a certain instructional approach may engage some students but not others. McCarthy encouraged teachers to incorporate into their lesson design a variety of techniques that acknowledged all four learning styles. McCarthy also suggested that the sequence instructors follow in addressing each learning style is significant and that if followed correctly, the lesson should both introduce new information and strengthen the general problem-solving skills of all students.

McCarthy’s 4MAT Model

Acknowledging all four different learning styles, McCarthy devised an instructional approach she called the 4MAT model, recognizing the four learning styles. In the model, McCarthy advised teachers to begin each lesson by connecting subject material to their students’ general backgrounds, stressing the problems and situations inherent in all human experience.  Like Dewey, McCarthy’s model may be viewed as experience-based. Once students are “connected” to the subject, teachers are encouraged to introduce new facts and theories to better assist students deal with the material under investigation. Next, students should be given to actively apply their new understandings. And lastly, students are to be tested for their ability to appropriately use the new material and personally challenged to link and to stretch the new material to other facets of their lives.

Throughout the 4MAT system, McCarthy borrowed heavily from the work of psychologist David Kolb; his 1978 “Learning-Style Inventory” provided the scaffold for her system. After designing his inventory, Kolb attempted to synthesize past research in experience-based education and proposed his own “experiential learning theory.” In his approach Kolb hoped to integrate scientific inquiry and general problem solving. Herein, for Kolb and McCarthy, lay the secret for successful classroom instruction: design classrooms as laboratories for inquiry.

For Kolb and McCarthy, when classrooms become learning laboratories, teachers begin lessons with concrete issues and problems students care about and have experienced, time is spent on observation and reflection, solutions are sought, ideas are tested, and conclusions are made. Immediate personal experience is the focal point for learning. Slowly, I began to realize that though I had valued the past experience of my students and often referred to it in my lessons, I was not designing shared or immediate experiences and using them to buttress my learning objectives. Because I was becoming confused about the role of experience in learning, I returned to the work of John Dewey and reread his classic treatment on the subject, Experience and Education.

Dewey’s Views Revisited

In Experience and Education, Dewey wrote that for a learning experience to become educative (i.e., experiences that expand rather than restrict future learning), two principles need to merge: the principles of continuity of experience and of interaction. Briefly, the principle of continuity of experience suggests that because each “new” experience is constructed upon the past, it is shaped by what has previously happened. In addition, each new experience modifies, in some way, the quality of future happenings. According to Dewey, needs, desires, capacities, and purposes are among the qualities that serve to motivate individuals to seek or to become engaged in new experiences. Next, the principle of interaction addresses the educational force or function of the new experience, i.e., the new situation. For an experience to be educative and lead to growth, a situation arises that intersects the already lived experience of the individual and affects the individual both intellectually and emotionally, resulting in an expansive sense of future possibilities.

As suggested, Dewey did not believe all experiences were equally educative. When an individual experiences a learning situation, as a student does in a university classroom, Dewey felt three possibilities can result, and two of them were not good — they enhanced neither growth nor learning. As far as learning is concerned, an experience can be educative, but, Dewey cautioned, it can also be non-educative, or mis-educative. To be non-educative meant that no connection between the individual and the new learning activity is made, as when a student ignores a professor’s lecture because it seems to lack relevance. Dewey would view this situation as non-educative because there is no intersection point between the learning activity and the individual. More significant for teachers, though, are situations that result in mis-education. In these cases there is an intersection between the learner’s past experience and the new learning activity, but rather than expand future opportunities, the results restrict them. An illustration would be when an instructor belittles the efforts of students to learn, resulting in diminished confidence in their ability to learn future material.

According to Dewey, the most critical building block for a teacher is the previous experience of their students, but this experience needs to intersect new learning in meaningful ways. For a classroom activity to be educative — i.e., to enhance growth and learning — the lesson must connect with the individual’s already lived experience in such a way as to enhance future learning.

Redesigning My Teaching

I began to understand that in my classroom I was connecting to student experience but was not taking it very far. In my eagerness to make the classroom a safe place, I neglected to also make it a place for disciplined problem solving. In addition, I had not shared enough, or modeled enough, of my own approach to problem solving. Because I did not wish to be overly directive, I hesitated to share with students the theories and ideas from the discipline that served me well as knowledge tools of my profession.

Returning to Dewey’s two principles underlying the educative value of a new experience, I began to realize I had ignored a significant part of their intersection point. The intersection point between continuity of experience and interaction meant more than the students’ interaction with new subject material, it also meant (or could mean) their interaction with me. Now it became okay to be both directive and student-centered when my directiveness was based on my personal experience with the subject. I did not need to play the role of oracle or truth provider, only that of fellow inquirer. My experience provided only another person’s struggling attempt to make sense of the complexities surrounding the field of study. And I was beginning to accept that I had some license to weave other parts of my life experience into my teaching as well. I realized, for example, that my previous work with amateur theater had some import for classroom instruction, especially in the design of story problems, which will be discussed latter in the essay.

Now when I approach my lessons, I continue to value student experience and continue to provide a comfortable climate for learning (some illustrations follow), but I also guide the class in very specific directions. Following McCarthy’s 4MAT model, I begin most lessons with a concrete situation, a shared experience, that students examine based on their past experience with the topic. Then, we discuss their responses and introduce other ideas regarding the topic; here I lecture a bit. Next, students are given new situations to examine and are encouraged to incorporate into their problem-solving recent lecture material. Finally, students are encouraged to review themes introduced in the lesson and generate new applications for the material.

Throughout, I attempt to make my UW classroom a place where ideas are examined and tested. I utilize activities such as story problems, with numerous variations in approach, to provide opportunities for students to tap previous experiences and understandings to address real life issues. In doing so, I follow McCarthy’s model and remain consistent with my basic Deweyan beliefs about experience, learning, and teaching. What follows are a few techniques, I use to help establish a comfortable and stimulating learning environment and successfully tap the richness of student experience.

Establishing a Respectful, Engaging Classroom Climate

Respect for students often begins by recognizing them as unique individuals engaged in ongoing growth and appreciating the role their past experiences play in the learning of new skills and ideas. Both can be addressed by simply concentrating on getting to know students better.   Numerous authors, and years of classroom teaching, suggest that students who feel anonymous in a classroom setting are less likely to feel a personal connection to the material. Motivation for learning is directly related to the relationship developed between students and their teacher. It should come as little surprise that the simple act of learning and using student names is a critical initial step in establishing a respectful classroom climate.

My preferred approach to learning student names in a classroom setting is the use of a simple sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 inch pastel paper folded in half vertically, one half of the sheet for the student’s name, the other half for class information. With a darkly colored marker, students can identify themselves in large enough letters that a teacher can easily read their names even in the back rows of typical classrooms seating 30 – 40 students.  Students lay the sheet flat, allowing the names to drape over the front of their desks. When folded, the name sheet provides space where teachers can share useful information about a lesson or about a group of lessons. This information might be an outline of the lesson for that day, material the analytic learners will appreciate.  It might include a puzzle to solve by the end of class as a kind of hands-on approach for the common sense learners.

Once the names of all the students are clearly visible, teachers can do a number of things to enhance student learning. Two strategies follow. One strategy I personally like to use is permissive probing, by which I examine what students feel, as well as know, about a subject while allowing them to decide if they will participate in the probing or not. This is a technique I began using after I realized it was okay to more directive. When probing student understanding of a topic, teachers often face a dilemma. Do they ask a question and wait patiently for a response (that may not come), do they only call upon students prepared to respond, or do they call upon students at random, increasing the possibility that some are unable or unwilling to respond? With permissive probing I can direct a question to the entire class and then call upon any student I wish. The student may respond to the question or may state his or her desire not to participate by passing. I then call upon someone else. Permissive probing allows me to “work the room” and involve many students in class discussions. The use of this strategy informs students that their participation is desired — that they do have something to contribute. This approach also encourages all students to listen to my questions.

Another strategy that enhances the motivation to learn is to personalize instruction by utilizing student names for illustrative purposes. When teaching, I often suggest a problem for students to solve by incorporating the names of students into the problem. Assuming these are some of the names of my students, I might say, “If Jill needed to research topic X what might she do first?” Or, “Imagine Bill is a new university teacher, what might he do to get to know his students better?” In addition to personalizing learning, the use of student names helps students stay attentive; rarely will students not attend to information when their names are being used.

Students are better served when they feel apart of and engaged in a lesson. One way to engage students is to recognize their presence. The more I visibly recognize the existence of all my students, the more likely I will reach all the students at some time during the lesson.

Tapping the Richness of Student Experience

To directly address student backgrounds and experience, the first day of each class I have all students complete an information sheet. Often only a single piece of paper, my information sheets usually are organized into four sections. The first section asks for current contact information: name, local mailing and email address, and telephone number. With this information I contact students about changes to the class schedule, mail or comment on assignments, or develop discussion groups. The next section generally seeks the students’ background with the subject material. I might ask them to identify both past experiences and academic preparation pertaining to the course content. I might also ask them to furnish their current definitions of some key terms I will use in the course. All this material helps me to better understand the previous work and experience of this particular group of students and, later in the course, can assist in weaving their backgrounds and comments into the course material and into my story problems.

The third section is often for quick responses to open-ended questions. I might ask students to complete the following:

1)    “When I think of learning, the first idea that comes to mind is _________ “

2)    “I hate it when teachers _________ “

3)   “The most significant problem university teachers face is _________ “

I attempt to generate personal reactions students have to some of the ideas I will explore during the course. Because the tasks are simple and easy to accomplish, students have little difficulty responding to each item. The final section of the information sheet is probably the most important. Here I ask students to identify any concerns they have that may make their successful completion of the course difficult. If students seem hesitant to respond to this question, I identify some concerns past students have noted.

Completed, the information data sheets inform and shape my relationship with this unique group of students. Also, I have a great deal of information that may be woven into future lessons. Students realize that their backgrounds matter and will be respected and that my intent is to develop the course with their previous experience in mind. Throughout the course I also share my personal response to each information sheet item.

To further probe student experience and direct the focus of my lessons, I frequently develop story problems. Earlier, I noted that adopting McCarthy’s 4MAT model allowed me to incorporate other interests into my expanded approach to instruction. One interest was theater. I had spent nearly six years coordinating and directing a troupe of professional adult educators involved in improvisation theater: the Wyoming Adult Education Social Action Theater. The focus of each performance was a few short scenarios, each attempting to engage the audience in a lively discussion of issues or concerns. Since this medium seemed so successful in professional development workshops, I decided to incorporate it into my classroom lessons. Rather than rely on actors to improvise dialogue to create situations for examination, I decided to create short story problems. The problems could be read by the class, converted to video clips, or acted, but the result would be an experience all students could examine.

A story problem portrays a situation where the reader is asked to address specific issues and concerns. I particularly enjoy using them in class because they can be used at various points in a lesson. Following McCarthy’s model, I can use a story problem early in a lesson to examine student responses to a situation. I can also use a story problem after attending to new concepts and ideas to check student understandings and to gauge their ability to apply the new learning to a specific situation. And I can use a story problem as a vehicle for testing.

Story problems fit rather nicely into my philosophy of education. They are examples of “shared experiences” noted earlier. They challenge all the students to examine the same incident and react to it against the backdrop of their own unique experiences. They create concrete situations where understandings vary and, like life itself, where different responses can be equally correct if conclusions are satisfactorily supported. Story problems also encourage students to treat ideas as tools to be used and not to be digested and regurgitated back as truth.

With the story problems or similar activities, I feel Dewey’s two principles of continuity of experience and of interaction intersect and the new learning experience becomes truly educative.

An On-Going Process

I should not close this essay leaving the impression I have stopped my search for effective teaching methods. Each new group of students helps me to continue growing as a teacher. Fundamental to my current approach to teaching at UW is setting a comfortable learning climate and following Dewey’s advice regarding the educative value of any new learning experience. I also attempt to incorporate McCarthy’s 4MAT model in my teaching and structure my lessons so each student’s learning style is addressed. Throughout I continue to explore ways to successfully tap into and utilize the previous experiences of my students and connect that experience in a meaningful way to new learning activities. At the same time, I am always searching for ways to strengthen the intersection of my students’ life experiences with my own.

Suggested Readings  

Brookfield, S. (1990).  The skillful teacher:  On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Day, M. (November/December, 1993). Being there: A lesson from Colonel Pickering. Adult Learning, 30-31.

Dewey, J. (1963).  Experience and education.  New York: Collier Books. (Original work   published 1938).

Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education.  New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1916)

Dewey, J. (1980). The school and society.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.  (Original work published 1899)

Knowles, M. S. (1970).  The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy.  New York: Association Press.

Knowles, M. S. (1980).  The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy.  Chicago: Follett Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1988). The adult learner: A neglected species.  Houston: Gulf.

Kolb, D. A.  (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall.

Kolb, D. A.  (1978/1985). Learning-Style Inventory.  Boston, MA: McBer & Company.

Lindeman, E. (1989).  The meaning of adult education.  Oklahoma Research Center. (Original work published 1926)

McCarthy, B. (1981). The 4 MAT system: Teaching to learning styles with             right/left mode techniques.  Oak Brook, IL: EXCEL, Inc.

McKeachie, W.J. (1999).  Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th Ed.).  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Slavin, R. E. (1997).  Educational psychology: Theory and practice (5th Ed.).  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1985).  Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A guide to improving instruction and increasing learner achievement.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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