by Doralisa Pilarte
It could be called “the stealth method of teaching.” Or “the hook ’em and reel ’em in approach.” But in academic circles it’s called “inquiry learning” – an innovative approach to making students active participants in their own education. And it runs counter to what many students have experienced throughout their educational careers – passively listening to lectures, taking notes, and spitting the information back out at exam time.
Inquiry learning is the core concept behind Marymount University’s new DISCOVER Program, a multi-faceted initiative that uses diverse tools to weave inquiry, research, and creativity into the fabric of a student’s academic career.
Dr. Liane Summerfield, associate vice president for Academic Affairs and director of the DISCOVER Center, explains, “We are unusual in that, while other schools emphasize inquiry learning, Marymount ties it in to our freshman seminar.”
DISCOVER was developed as part of the University’s reaffirmation of accreditation process in 2008. Marymount’s new DISCOVER Center was established to coordinate the many initiatives that fall under this broad program, including an Office of Undergraduate Research; First-Year Experience classes; an annual Student Research Conference; and a Summer Research Program for students and their faculty mentors. The center’s mission is to promote student engagement in the Marymount University learning community, as well as broader national and international communities of learners, through research, creative work, and inquiry learning.
Incoming Marymount students are now being introduced to inquiry learning through a three-credit First-Year Experience course called Discover 101. The class introduces new students to the University and to the academic expectations of college-level learning.
Each section of Discover 101 has a unique theme, and students are encouraged to sign up for a section that relates to their major or otherwise piques their curiosity. The sections cover a broad swath of interest areas, from science, to business, to communication, to politics. Current Discover 101 section titles include Banned Books, Spying in a Democracy, and Who’s Dow Jones? Using a variety of readings and activities focused on its particular theme, each Discover 101 class teaches the principles of inquiry learning and gives students the opportunity to become active participants in the academic endeavor.
Inquiry learning involves formulating questions, developing research strategies, and reaching sound conclusions. Working closely with their professor and a peer mentor assigned to the class, students in each section of Discover 101 begin the intellectual adventure that is higher education. Dr. Summerfield says, “This inquirylearning experience at the start of their college career sets the tone for our students. It tells them right off the bat that they will be expected to take responsibility for their own learning, and that we believe that they are capable of that – capable of being active, engaged learners.”
Regardless of the topic of each section, all Discover 101 courses share the same set of objectives. These include academic goals like applying critical thinking and demonstrating strong communication skills, and personal-development goals like assessing career interests and engaging with the community outside the classroom.
Discover 101 was piloted in fall 2008. Dr. Summerfield explains, “We initially offered four sections. We randomly selected 80 incoming freshmen and asked them to indicate their level of interest in the four topics, then assigned each student to his or her first- or second-choice seminar. The classes were a big success, and feedback from the students was extremely positive. So this fall, we increased the number of sections to 10 and allowed 200 students to participate.”
She continues, “Both this year and last, we continued to offer Marymount’s traditional one-credit Freshman Seminar as an alternative to Discover 101, but our objective has been to phase that out altogether. Next fall, we’ll have the full rollout: The old Freshman Seminar will disappear, and there will be 20 sections of Discover 101, with all incoming freshmen required to take the course.”
Dr. Summerfield notes that many useful lessons have been learned during the pilot years. For example, “We found that we need to give our faculty more training in how to teach inquiry-based courses. For some faculty, this is a new pedagogical approach, and the traditional lecture method had a tendency to creep in. We also learned that we have to be explicit with students on what inquiry learning is all about. And we realized that we need to get our peer mentors and faculty together earlier, and give the peer mentors training in how to support and encourage students who are engaged in inquiry learning.”
So Dr. Summerfield and Dr. Carolyn Oxenford, director of Marymount’s Center for Teaching Excellence, conducted three faculty workshops in spring and summer 2009, with topics ranging from the selection of Discover 101 course themes to the development of inquiry-based activities and pedagogical “best practices” for guided learning. Dr. Oxenford notes that the workshops also emphasized certain topics that must be covered in every section of Discover 101: “These include career development – to start students thinking in that direction – and information literacy – to position them to use the library and other resources effectively.”
Liane Summerfield believes that “Discover 101 is good not only for our students but also for our faculty. It gives them a chance to be
creative.” She laughs, “I like to think of the professors who are teaching Discover 101 as viruses: They will infect their departments with enthusiasm for inquiry learning and soon everyone will want to do it this way, in courses at every level! That’s how inquiry learning gets infused across the curriculum and actually becomes a way of life for an academic institution. And that is our goal for Marymount.”
The DISCOVER Program’s early results are extremely promising. Dr. Summerfield says, “Already we know that we have a higher freshman-tosophomore retention rate among the students who took the pilot courses in fall 2008 – 75%, versus 68% for those who didn’t take Discover 101!”
INQUIRY LEARNING: FUN AND RELEVANT
Cayla Lang, a Mathematics major from Wallingford, Connecticut, and one of the first recipients of Marymount’s new S-STEM Scholarship (funded by the National Science Foundation) enrolled in a Discover 101 class called CSI Marymount. She says she chose it because “CSI is one of my favorite TV shows, and I was intrigued by what this class would be about.”
During this whodunit of a course, teams of students reviewed photographs of a “crime scene” (a chemistry lab) and “murder victim” (Dr. Laura Medhurst, professor of Chemistry). Each team’s job was to gather evidence, including fingerprints, put together a case against a suspect, and go to “court” to try the case based on the evidence.
Cayla says, “We had a detective from the Arlington Police Department talk to us about being a crime scene investigator. She said that most people are oblivious to their surroundings and most eyewitnesses are pretty useless. Now, if I go into DC, I’m more aware on the Metro of the people sitting around me, instead of being in my own little world. I’ve become more observant and I’ve learned to take better notes.”
Another Marymount S-STEM scholar, Biology major Jessica Hopkins from Nashua, New Hampshire, loves to tackle puzzles. She says that she learned to be an even better problem solver through Dr. Kate Sheehan’s Discover 101 class, titled What’s Your Problem?
Jessica says, “I learned about analogies, how to figure out the meaning of words from the context, and how to come at a problem from different angles. Overall, this course definitely makes you a better thinker.”
Anton Mursin of Gaithersburg, Maryland, wants to be a history teacher. He says that he chose Dr. Ana Lado’s class, Expressing Creativity in Art and Language with Digital Stories and Picture Books, because “I’m not that creative, and since I want to be a teacher, I need to learn to visualize problems in different ways.”
It wasn’t an easy start for him, though. Anton notes, “I had never taken a class like this before. I was used to a teacher giving me the questions, but Dr. Lado let us choose our own. I’d never had a class where you were allowed to think for yourself. Dr. Lado taught us how to think about a problem, then let us work on solutions.”
Anton says that he’s already using lessons learned in Discover 101 in his life. He volunteers at a school, where he’s teaching kindergarteners how to color-code items. He says, “It’s easier now for me to think of different ways to teach the kids.”
Cindy Trang, from Nokesville, Virginia, sees a clear connection between her Nursing major and the information she learned in her Discover 101 section, Banned Books.
She says, “I love reading, and I loved how Dr. [Robert] Otten outlined what we were going to learn. He said, ‘Pay attention to censorship and to what’s going on around you.’ Then he sent us to do research on who banned a book and why. It was stimulating because we discovered the bigger picture and the motives behind the censorship.”
Cindy continues, “As a nurse, you have to know how to interpret something that’s not clearly defined. You start with a question – what is the cause of this patient’s symptoms or situation? You make observations, put together the facts, do research if necessary. This helps you understand the bigger picture and make good decisions. So I think that my Discover 101 class has started me on the right road to my future.”