One of the most important learning reflections I had last year was the absence of retention by students beyond the emotional experiences they had following excursions we took that were related to our content. I realized the content links I was hoping would be made were weaker for three reasons.
Firstly, I was unaware of the nature of the excursions. I had a sense communicated to me, and I did a bit of scouting but it is not like running a live test. It was my first time doing them and I was learning too. I made notes during every event to learn what we did, how it went and how it could improve for this year. But I left a bit of learning on the table because I was unaware of the learning possibilities. I somewhat neglected assuring the learning cycle between preparation, process and debriefing in the context of guided excursions happened on a ritualistic basis.
Secondly, last year myself and the students were insufficiently prepared to directly relate the excursions with the content. No doubt experiencing the Catalan culture as we did enriched our understanding of things, but learning under these conditions can be a bit happenstance. I hear from different sources and see for myself some students pitch up in a coach, wander around, ask few questions, do a bit of tasting and return to the city and write a paper due a week later on what happened. I imagine there is value in this approach, but I come from a background that demands understanding and retention for application later. After all I represent UIC and my institution strives to be a World Class institution and that means doing our best to create the conditions for student growth, learning and accomplishment. I am seeking seeking the kind of deep and significant learning that comes with engagement and commitment with the content and the outside world in a series of events reinforcing relationships between the two. I did not properly brief the students to my liking last year, but this year we have done things differently.
Lastly, I did not know what I did not know during last year’s program. In the previous 12 months I have developed this year’s program based on discussions, evaluations, reflections of the 2015 and 2016 programs with colleagues in the US and Spain. Armed with new insights we did several things differently. I outline the sequence of learning below.
What We Did Better This Year
I planned the program around our themes and aligned the learning outcomes and objectives with the in-class projects or field projects students completed in groups. All the work we completed was concentrated experiencing and applying our content deeply. The theme was introduced before we participated an excursion. Before the guide led excursion every student was provided with a critical inquiry guide sheet to assist them to get into the discovery mindset needed in these kinds of new situations. The inquiry sheets use a series of structured inquiry prompts to stimulate visualization of the experience ahead. Followed by reflective prompts to process the experience after its completion.
We often debriefed at the location or on the bus. Lindsey (my teaching assistant) led the on-site debriefs and I led the in-class facilitation and content linkage. The final step as you can see if you read our site is the students selecting a point of view form their experience to approach the content through. The administrative piece we do next is to work as an instructional team to scaffold through discussion and writing assistance the students posts. finally I then complete is an assessment and feedback of their work with prompts and feedback.
This process probably sounds like a lot of work. It is, but while we are not working as hard as our students our role is wholly concentrated on assuring quality and consistency. Learning is at the center of these programs and to assure it happens I need to inspect what I expect. As a UIC professor I expect to create an enriching and challenging academic process and I believe this year we played the notes better than last year and got a better tune.