Once Upon a Time, a Novel Teaching Idea
by Dan Berrett, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Early in the semester, Stan Eisen presents students in his upper-level biology courses with an unusual choice: Would they prefer to take a final exam or write a children’s book?
"I see it as a tool to get students engaged so they see the topic as interesting, fascinating, and worthwhile," Eisen, a professor of biology at Christian Brothers University, said of the book project.
It's also a means of achieving something that we described in last week's newsletter: helping students construct knowledge. Or, as Eisen said: "You really don’t understand something until you can teach it to someone else."
He started offering them the option seven years ago, when his oldest granddaughter, who was his inspiration for the idea, was 4. The first book was called Don't Get Sick, Stan!, and students in his senior-level parasitology course wrote about the parasitic diseases that can fester in a school cafeteria and give a child abdominal distress or diarrhea.
It was self-published and made for an excellent — if unconventional — holiday gift, he says. There was even a book signing at a local shop.
Above: Dr. Stan Eisen with students in his 2011 Parasitology class and their book, Don't Get Sick, Stan!
Eisen said he had often come across scholarly articles about the importance of student engagement, which can be achieved through high-impact practices like experiential learning. In the natural sciences, he says, such practices tend to take the form of experiments or undergraduate research projects.
In contrast, he says, producing a narrative from the course material and explaining it to a child turns the project into a teaching tool. "As far as an experiential opportunity," he said, "I was onto something."
It also helps fulfill one of his larger teaching goals: for his students to leave his course different from how they were when they started it.
Since then, he's offered the option to students in his course on invertebrate zoology, who produced an alphabetical coloring book, All Creatures Small and Smaller: The World of Invertebrates.
When he presents the option to his students, he sticks to a few rules, borne of trial and error. The students must be unanimous in their decision. He tried allowing them to work in small groups on topics of their choosing, but he found that the results weren't as good. Now Eisen assigns the topic, and the entire class of about 32 students works as a group.
He also asks Samantha Alperin, chair of the education department, to give a presentation to his students on how to write for children. "If you can make a 7-year-old understand it," he said, "you’ve accomplished something."
The choice that Eisen gives his students is interesting, in part, because the options don’t necessarily achieve pedagogically similar goals. When I referred to the book project as an alternative assessment, he stopped me. An assessment like a multiple-choice test would help him gauge how well students can answer questions about, say, the life cycles of parasites.
The book project, though, is a teaching-and-learning tool. And it’s an experience in many senses of the word – one that alumni have told him they recall fondly. “Who remembers taking a final exam, a year or two or three years later?” he asked.
Reprinted with permission from Teaching, a free weekly newsletter of The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can reach Dan Berrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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