Teaching and learning, learning and teaching at MHC

Director of the Teaching and Learning Initiative, Elizabeth Markovits, discussing teaching techniques.

By Keely Savoie

What does it feel like to inhabit another race in the virtual world? Can such an experience change the way we view social justice? Can it change the way we understand race and racism?

These are some of the questions being confronted in the research of John Tawa, assistant professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College. Tawa has designed a project for his students using Second Life, the virtual-world platform, to develop and embody avatars of a race different from their own. He will use surveys and other behavioral measures of the user’s experience, including their levels of physiological arousal, to measure their racial attitudes and beliefs about social justice.

Tawa is a fellow in the College’s Teaching and Learning Initiative, one of two professors who are using their classrooms as research labs this year.

“Teaching and learning — the things that go into making a great classroom experience — are not static,” said Elizabeth Markovits, the TLI director and an associate professor of politics. “The Teaching and Learning Initiative collaborates with students and faculty to make the Mount Holyoke classroom experience even better and more accessible to all.”

With programs like the Teaching Learning Initiative, which was conceived under the auspices of the College’s Weissman Center for Leadership, it’s no coincidence that The Princeton Review ranked Mount Holyoke second in the nation for Best Classroom Experience this year.

Now in its second year as a stand-alone program, the theme of TLI this year — power and pedagogy — challenges faculty to get creative with their courses, spruce up their syllabi and find ways to ensure that all students feel valued and able to access the curriculum.

The initiative accomplishes that by hosting a roster of speakers, seminars and brown-bag lunches, all organized around teaching and promoting student-centered teaching, encouraging curricular innovation and focusing on the passion for teaching that makes Mount Holyoke faculty shine.

Tawa and Mark Shea, a lecturer in English, are the 2017–18 TLI Faculty Fellows, a new program that Markovits introduced in May. The program gives professors a chance to immerse themselves in the literature on pedagogical innovation and teaching for a year, while contributing to the literature themselves. Each fellow takes on a research project that focuses on looking at how particular tools and methods can facilitate learning.

Like Tawa, Shea is using his classroom as a kind of pedagogical research lab: He is asking his spring semester students to develop a tool, such as a website that can be collaboratively modified, to convey tips and tricks for success to the next year’s class.  

The assignment, which sounds deceptively simple, has two important goals. First, Shea believes that students learn better when their work is directed at a specific goal. As his students are polishing their writing skills, having them direct their work toward their peers provides a motivation that Shea hopes will translate into greater facility and language skill acquisition.

“It gives you a stronger focus when you are writing for an audience,” said Shea, who also serves as coordinator of Mount Holyoke’s program for English for Speakers of Other Languages. “I want to build my students’ confidence in their own contributions to the Mount Holyoke academic community.”

The second facet of his research, said Shea, is to receive and incorporate feedback on his own teaching practices. The tool that the students produce will give him a direct window into the comments and suggestions that students offer one another to succeed in his class.

“As an instructor, it’s always a balancing act,” he said. “On one hand, you want to teach the students in a specific way, and you look for particular outcomes. But on the other hand, you want to support your students in what they want to learn and how they go about doing it.”

Shea will assess his students’ learning in the new model with a variety of tools, including interviews and linguistic-analysis tools. This, in turn, will inform how he tweaks his curriculum in the following year.

Both Shea and Tawa will present their findings at the Teaching and Scholarship Renewal conference that TLI hosts each May. The two will also present at a larger academic conference and they are encouraged to publish their research.

“I am especially inspired by the engagement that faculty have brought to the program,” said Markovits. “A big part of TLI is improving how we teach by being mindful of diversity in our world and in our classrooms, and how we can make the Mount Holyoke education relevant and meaningful to all types of students.”

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