I Stopped Lecturing so That My Students Could Own Their Learning

As an attorney and business owner, I have seen first hand how often our educational system fails to prepare students for the workforce. We don’t simply need employees who can follow directions and complete assignments; we need employees who are curious, ask thoughtful questions and have the confidence to explore new ideas. We need employees who are sincerely excited about learning. But how do you teach that?

As a professor at Georgetown University’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, I have been aware that traditional didactic learning approaches are neither intellectually inspiring nor especially effective in building critical thinking skills. Over the past few years, I tried to create a more student-centered curriculum. But it was simply too time-consuming-- and frankly too daunting-- to shift from a traditional syllabus to a truly inquiry-based, student-centered pedagogy.

If I don’t tell my students what to learn and how to learn it, what would the class look like? If students are not all completing the same assignment, how can I assess their progress? How will I know if anyone is learning anything?

Why I Moved Away from Lecture

I have taught my courses in the past by handing out assignments each week, then providing assessments to ensure those assignments were completed. I would lecture on what I thought were the most important issues/concepts my students “should” know, and then tack on an individual research project that provided each student a chance to actually learn about what interested them most.

I worked hard to be a good teacher. I had lesson plans with funny stories and pretty visuals, a variety of assignments that were regularly updated, and I topped it off with a positive attitude. But it was a show; I was working harder than my students, and getting burnt out. I didn’t want my course to be an event that students attend; I wanted it to be a workshop in which each student is a key participant. I wanted my students to learn how to learn.

I heard about inquiry-based learning from my friend and fellow instructor, Lindy Elkins-Tanton. She had been experimenting with inquiry-based learning for years, and I’d observed in various ways. I reached out to her and her team at Beagle Learning for help.

Beagle was exactly what I needed. For me, they were part pedagogical advisor (“How do your educational goals relate to this inquiry-based activity?”), part tech/admin support (“Put your instructions in this box here so all the students can vote for the questions they find most compelling”) and part educational therapist (“What are you afraid will happen if you don’t lecture about that?”). Beagle has been my coach, my tech team and my sounding board.

How I Run My Inquiry-Based Courses Now

It has been a productive and exciting semester. With Beagle’s support, I redesigned two of my courses to significantly increase student engagement, and my Introduction to Gender Studies class is now a full-on inquiry-based course.

If you’re interested in the framework that I followed for my courses, Lindy has written a few great blog posts on inquiry-based learning in Higher Ed that you can follow here: step-by-step guide and the original post on how she ran her course to have a culture of learning.

Our collective goal, as a class, is to better understand gender inequality and what can be done about it. Students are developing, evaluating and refining research questions, conducting original research, collaborating with classmates to hone their research skills and identifying new areas of inquiry through natural next questions. The teams are developing research maps that show the sometimes divergent, sometimes convergent nature of the research process.

I have come to realize that there are no “sacred texts” that a student must read in order to complete my course successfully. The process of asking questions, struggling forward toward some goal, and learning to be your own judge of the excellence and completion of your work is so much more important than being familiar with one particular author or concept.

On the first day of my Beagle class, I explained my plan to the students. The students will decide what to study. The students will conduct research to answer the questions that they have. The students will share findings and evaluate their research questions in order to make their inquiry-based research more effective. Students will be rewarded for taking on especially challenging material because learning how to get out of your intellectual comfort zone is an
important and often neglected skill.

One student asked me to clarify. If they chose research that was really difficult for them, such as an article that was especially technical, they would not be penalized for not understanding it all?

Nope- quite the opposite. They will get credit for getting out of their comfort zone.

“Really?” she asked again. ”I have been a student for as long as I can remember. No teacher has ever asked me to ask my own questions, much less try to answer them. And no one has ever given me credit for going outside my comfort zone. This is really cool.”

Getting Used to My New Role in the Classroom

It took a couple of weeks to get into the flow. But as the research groups got comfortable with each other and started analyzing the research together, I started to feel guilty. I was just sitting there for large parts of the class, watching the students exchange ideas. They were asking questions, refining questions, critiquing sources and determining the next steps. And I was, well, watching.

So I added a new part to the class. I told the students that anyone who had a particular interest, whether from the research or anywhere else, should post it on a sticky note at the beginning of class, and other students could vote for the topics in which they were most interested. I would lecture on these topics; in this way, I would at least be sharing my expertise for one part of the class.

They loved the idea, and on that first day, I collected suggestions and happily provided some short lectures over the next couple of classes addressing those issues.

Last week I reminded folks to add questions, but no one did. They were already in their research groups, eager to share what they had learned with each other. They were too busy to tell me what I should teach them because they were too busy, well, learning.

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About Sara Collina

Founder and Director, Blueberry Hill Strategies; Adjunct Lecturer in Women's and Gender Studies Program, Georgetown University