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Clif Conrad discusses collaborative learning on WISCAPE podcast

by Brett Ranon Nachman | May 21, 2018

WISCAPE_NowInHigherEdlogo - 1400pxThe third episode of WISCAPE's "Now in Higher Ed” podcast ​features “spirited academic dialogue” with Dr. Clifton Conrad, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and WISCAPE's faculty director. ​Conrad contends that we should prioritize quality learning experiences in postsecondary education as opposed to emphasizing hard metrics. During our conversation, Conrad upends traditional notions of how college classrooms operate and instead calls for more cooperative and individualized learning.

Here are some highlights from the discussion.

  • Often academics look solely at inputs and outputs, giving an incomplete picture of student learning. “The salient point, I think, is we fail to look at what happens between entry and exit,” Conrad says. “Too much attention falls on inputs like entry examinations, as well as outputs like job outcomes and income. Value-added learning more precisely refers to what happens between entry and exit, and that’s what I think we ought to be paying attention to. Too infrequently I think we’re using metrics that do not even look at learning whatsoever.” Case in point, Conrad indicates that professors, including he, must engage in more self-reflection to determine how to enhance the quality of students’ learning experiences. Through instituting online discussions and group projects that promote collaborative learning, for instance, he encourages students to take greater ownership of their academic engagement.
  • Faculty can institute more value-added learning techniques, no matter the size or type of classroom they lead. “This is one of the domains where technology may be very relevant, where we can get students to dialogue with one another over the Internet,” he says. He also calls for formative feedback, which involves suggesting ideas for enhancing the language/architecture of student papers. “I think most students, somewhat ironically, and I want to push this point, who go through 16, 18, 20 years of formal education, and only a few times will they get formative feedback from a professor, from a tutor, from a peer,” Conrad says. Therefore, he emphasizes peer learning, a form of learning where individuals teach concepts to one another; in his eyes, this technique “reduces the fear factor.” Time constraints might limit formative feedback directly from the instructor, Conrad indicates, yet these challenges can be reconciled somewhat via highlighting examples of papers in the class or encouraging peers to review one another’s work. Giving feedback “is an art and a science,” he says. This “refers to getting trust with students and having them come to appreciate and understand that you’re trying to be helpful, that your job is to advance their capabilities…”
  • Professors often remain too focused on status. “This refers to something I have long been very concerned about, namely that we put, for faculty, prestige to supersede quality as the touchstone of what’s really important, and so we look at the quantity of publications, the number of citations, the number of awards,” Conrad says. “Just because your work is cited doesn’t mean that it is necessarily well received.” Tenure cases should focus more on looking at the thoughtfulness, originality, and rigor of professors’ work, Conrad contends. “This emphasis on individual achievement, ‘me’ over ‘we,’ echoes the overall neoliberalism ethos that has become much more prevalent in our colleges and universities.” Instead, following the lead of more collaborative and collectivist minority-serving institutions (MSIs) is a better practice.
  • Following a bottom-up model can invite collaborative learning. Conrad appreciates this framework, utilized by many MSIs, which involve administrators eliciting feedback from students. This also entails “blending roles and responsibilities,” which may involve staff members both supporting students in their offices and serving as instructors. Conrad recall​s a memory of meeting with a staff member at the University of Texas at El Paso who financially supported and provided formative feedback to a student who engaged in a long commute to campus. Culturally-relevant problem solving, which engages students in addressing community issues, is also often in play at these institutions. For instance, when water quality compromised tribal health near Salish Kootenai College, a researcher recruited a student to study how to remove the harmful chemicals from the water. “It wasn’t simply about individual achievement and securing a degree, but learning.”

Conrad concluded that one lingering misstep in academia is that leaders are not as engaged in their campus communities. “There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a provost at a coffee shop, walking across the campus, talking to students...” Taking a more one-on-one approach, he says, is necessary, even in large institutions. “Our leaders can be much less hierarchical and get out and cover the terrain.”

Listen to the full interview on PodBean or by ​searching for "WISCAPE Now in Higher Ed" on iTunes.

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