Authentic Learning: Best Practices

Big Ideas faculty members choose one faculty member to take on the role of course director, organizing the instructors, performing a final vetting of the syllabus, and serving as a point person for dealing with administrative concerns.  

During the course, faculty found it helpful to meet on a weekly basis to bring together their perspectives on students’ learning and course goals.

Using a wiki or a dropbox can conveniently organize ideas about the course in both the planning and the implementation stages.

It may be advantageous to choose faculty members not only for their expertise, but also according to whether they are at a stage in their careers where they can take on this kid of course.

Students may be less anxious about the course if the faculty clarify who will be doing the grading and how students should direct their individual questions. It may be useful to explain that the instructors confer as a team on a regular basis.

Rubrics can ensure that grading reflects shared disciplinary and individual priorities. Sharing the rubrics with the students can help them to grasp the learning objectives of the assignments.

Faculty with different disciplinary backgrounds can design a syllabus satisfactory to all by using Backward Course Design, a process by which instructors first identify learning goals and then determine assessments, reading assignments, and in-class activities that will guide students to fuller understanding.

Labs and other projects can require students to synthesize disciplinary conclusions. 

I was in your People & the Environment course last semester and I wanted to let you know how much it has altered my critical thinking-- for the better….Today [I thought again about] Rajasthan, the Green Revolution, industrialized agriculture around the world. I thought about the environmental impact each of these subsistence methods had. I imagined what gender roles you might find in each society. I speculated about how their methods affected their diet, such an integrated part of culture. Lastly, I thought about how the government felt about each method. 

I doubt this depth of thinking would have happened without the help of your class and I wanted to thank you and let you know that all your hard work (it was evident how much you all put into the course) is much appreciated. 

-A former Big Ideas student

One of the benefits of the Big Ideas courses is that instructors are able to explain as well as model intellectual discourse.  They ask questions and build on each other’s expertise in a way that invites students into the conversation.

Student motivation can be boosted through frank discussions about the pedagogical motivations behind interdisciplinary, collaborative, and active learning. 

Students may require help understanding how individual lesson plans fit into the broader goals of the course, and recognizing various disciplinary perspectives as distinct, but cohesive.  In “Origins of Life in the Universe,” instructors created a timeline that depicts the 14 billion years of history covered by the course.  Each day the instructors begin by showing students where the day’s material will fall on the timeline.

The Big Ideas faculty have found that these courses benefit from meeting in TILE active-learning classrooms, which are equipped with circular tables, laptops, flat screen monitors, multiple projectors, and white boards that encourage and support collaborative and engaged learning.