Brandeis professors go to the head of the class with new learning methods

Photo/Mike Lovett

The Celebration of Teaching and Learning at Brandeis

Imagine having entire sections of the National Archives’ repository at your fingertips or developing proficiency in Russian faster than you ever believed possible.

Brandeis’ Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) brings together faculty, graduate students and postdocs to share innovative ideas that strengthen teaching methods and make the pedagogically challenging a reality.

In May, the CTL held its Celebration of Teaching and Learning at Brandeis — a daylong symposium with dozens of Brandeis faculty members and educational-nonprofit leaders, some of whom presented strategies proven to transform students’ learning experiences. 

Each presenter created a new learning method with the help of a Provost’s Teaching Innovation Grant; the grants ranged from $2,000 to $20,000.

The symposium kicked off with a keynote address by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana of the Right Question Institute, who developed the Question Formulation Technique, a revolutionary method that helps instructors teach their students how to ask probing questions.

Dan Perlman, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, also invited emeritus professors back to campus for a session called Lessons Learned, led by classical studies professor Lenny Muellner and American studies professor Joyce Antler, who shared their strategies for better engaging students. The purpose of the session, said Perlman, was to reconnect faculty with former colleagues who have decades of experience in developing teaching methods.

Many current Brandeis faculty have already found new ways to teach and mentor students in their courses in collaboration with the CTL.

For example, Russian language program director Irina Dubinina spoke about a new tactic she’s employed to speed up the rate at which people learn a new and difficult language: a series of online videos that improve students’ speaking proficiency and grasp of grammatical concepts.

“It usually takes two or three years before most students in a traditional class setting will be able to speak Russian at an intermediate or a proficient level,” Dubinina said. “It is one of the hardest languages to learn.

“But with this program, I have been able to transition students to speaking only in Russian in almost all of my classes.”

With his CTL grant, associate professor of politics Kerry Chase, who teaches international relations and foreign economic policy, sought to refine how his students research semester-long papers.

He created a digital portfolio of tens of thousands of American foreign policy documents from the National Archives, which are available to his students through the Brandeis LATTE website.

“I was especially impressed that students could take these raw materials and actually produce really interesting, original research,” Chase said. “I found it especially interesting how authoritatively and confidently they spoke about the evidence and findings because they had actually been working with these primary materials themselves.

“Students developed a lot of new knowledge, new facts, new interpretations, and challenges to existing conventional wisdom that have fascinating implications for how we understand international institutions and their place in the world to this very day.”

Meanwhile, computer science professor Rick Alterman led the Student Apprenticeship in Computer Science and Learning Sciences last fall, bringing together eight undergraduates to learn a new programming language, and design and custom build platforms for four different faculty members, as well as provide instructions on how to use the system.

“Students loved the program; it felt like a community,” said Alterman. “Part of this learning experience was a change in identity for these students.

“They went from knowing how to program to feeling like actual computer scientists.”

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