Michigan’s World Class: Teaching and learning at U-M

January 22, 2013
Laurel Thomas

ANN ARBOR—Students earning credit for creating cell phone learning apps for Singapore 3rd graders. Faculty taking students to Detroit to figure out a watering system for a community garden or help a nonprofit with a business problem. A program supporting sophomores who often don’t get the attention other students do. A course in which students visit natural habitats in order to understand environmental challenges.

These are just some of the ways teaching and learning happen at the University of Michigan. The stories of life-changing classroom experiences, inspiring faculty members, and students itching to roll up their sleeves and work on societal problems are the focus of a new series at U-M.

“Michigan’s World Class” celebrates teaching and learning at U-M by telling stories of how schools and colleges and, more importantly, the faculty in them, are challenging today’s students in new ways.

“We’re in a moment of critical change in the ways that higher education works for our students,” said Phil Deloria, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, adding that teaching, “is really the heart of everything we do; it’s why we are here.”

Teaching takes many forms at U-M, ranging from the classic lecture to courses that use the latest and greatest technology, not only to engage students but track and measure their success.

A number of U-M faculty are “flipping classroom,” offering lectures online so that class time can be spent in discussion and problem solving, leading to better understanding of the ideas and a better ability to use those ideas. Still others are matching students with people and organizations to work on projects in attempt to help address real problems.

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Provost Phil Hanlon says additional ways students are learning today include engaging with faculty in their research; participating in service learning, entrepreneurial activities, creative performance and clinical placements; and taking advantage of travel abroad experiences.

“The future I see is that the balance between that kind of active learning and passive learning in the classroom is going to have to shift considerably to the active learning side,” he said. “So we’re going to be doing more situations with students in small groups, who, together with faculty, are actually grappling with complex problems in the world.”

The immersive learning experience is at the heart of much of the curriculum in the College of Engineering, where from the first introductory course students engage with hands-on, often client-based experiences, and hundreds of students from schools and colleges across campus come together on projects like the U-M solar car.

“A lot of learning happens when students engage with the material, when they try it out, when they try and use ideas that they’ve learned from a classroom or learned from reading a textbook,” said James Holloway, associate dean of engineering, Thurnau Professor and professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences.

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Constance Cook, associate provost and director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, says U-M provides a great deal of support for faculty to adapt to the changing needs of today’s diverse student body.

“There are lots of funds for faculty who want to do innovative projects with their students, and there are plenty of programs about teaching strategies, with faculty colleagues offering examples,” she said. “CRLT and other offices provide inspiration and guidance—both in person and on the web. And we see at this university many faculty who take good advantage of these opportunities.”

Programs offered to faculty include grant funding to try out new approaches and technology, to take students on trips, or to pay for outside speakers and other activities; programs that bring faculty together to share experiences and ideas; and programs that showcase excellence, including the Thurnau Professorships and the Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize.

In addition, LSA offers support for its faculty, including Teaching Transformed Grants, which help a senior faculty member who wants to integrate new methods into the classroom but needs a technical expert to work alongside him or her for a time.

Hanlon also points to the new Third Century Initiative, launched a year ago, which includes allocating $50 million over five years for the development of innovative student learning experiences and creative approaches to the world’s greatest challenges and opportunities.


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