Challenging Traditional Teaching and Learning

by Isalena Gilzene, Assistant Professor, Human Services, Goodwin University

Reflecting on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) training, the Disney movie Brave comes to mind, specifically, the scene where Merida affirms by stating, “It is time to break tradition.” This movie, in my opinion, presented a conflicting reality where Merida’s parents faced that which they feared — their daughter challenging family tradition and customs as she develops into a young woman. Merida’s expression is a simple yet profound statement that aligns with my perspective on some traditional methods of teaching and learning that seem antiquated for the 21st-century. It is time to break traditional teaching pedagogy and employ new ways of representing information to students. For some educators, perhaps it is time to at least modify traditional teaching practices and explore new methods that truly place students front and center of their own learning.

As program director and internship coordinator for the Human Services program at Goodwin University, I thoughtfully selected the internship practicum I course as my UDL +1 solution focus. It is the first time many students engage in entry-level human services field experience. One assignment used to assess students’ learning is the completion of reflection summaries. Students are instructed to examine each two-week period of internship hours completed by producing a summary of the tasks and reflecting on the process. During the UDL training, it became apparent that the reflection summary instructions did not include guided questions or clarity on what I expected students to produce in their writing. The element of explaining how to write a purposeful summary and engage in reflection of the internship experience was not explicitly stated. The UDL training proved to be a great opportunity to examine the elements of this assignment.

Through the UDL training, I was able to acknowledge my own educational experiences as deeply rooted in traditional teaching and learning. I was not surprised that I adopted a similar pedagogy; I expected students to “figure it out” as I once did. I recall reading my own professors’ assignment instructions and feeling too self-conscious to ask clarifying questions for parts of the instructions I perceived as unclear. Professors during my educational journey and cultural background were viewed with the highest regard — and still are. Very rarely, if ever, would my peers and I question assignments that were presented to us; after all, professors were the experts and the authority. However, faculty sometimes work through the motions of teaching. They inadvertently lose sight of making sure students have all the tools needed to understand course assignments. Thinking back on my own educational experience has helped me to identify a clear goal for the UDL training: to review my teaching practices and join Merida on the quest to break traditional pedagogies that are ineffective to students’ learning.

I reviewed the reflection assignment instructions at the start of the training and discovered the assignment did not include a well-defined explanation on how to write a reflection. It was rather implied that as college students, they knew how to reflect — after all, my own experience in college was at play. While written with good intentions, the instructions were broad and did not provide a format for students to organize themes of the internship experience. Furthermore, there were no instructions on how students should incorporate their personal reflection on assigned tasks from the site supervisor or how the experience relate to their career interest in human services. This meant, the instructions did not guide students on how to discuss their own emotions and reactions to the “whole” internship experience. As a result, reading some students’ reflection summaries was a daunting process that resulted in lower than expected graded points earned on an assignment that seemed so simple. As the UDL training progressed, it became even more evident that I needed to overhaul the reflection assignment and explore the use of journaling.

Like Merida’s bold approach to challenging her parents and breaking tradition, the principles of UDL were long overdue and a good premise to challenge traditional teaching and learning practices. The first UDL +1 principle that was explored is Engagement checkpoint 9.3: develop self-assessment and reflection. In the internship practicum, seminar meetings provide opportunities for students to receive support from the internship coordinator, while making connections and learning from each other’s internship experiences. Based on the engagement checkpoint guide, the first step was to add an agenda item to the seminar meetings that specifically addressed the art of reflecting (engaging in deep thinking about the internship). I can no longer assume what students know; it is my duty as the course instructor to provide students with the tools needed to achieve learning outcomes. Guided instructions were added to engage students in discussing their personal experience with reflective writing with an introduction to critical thinking. Karen Kitchener’s work on reflective judgment has proven that reflection is a deeper process of thinking (with many parts) and develops over a lifetime. Most often, asking students to reflect did not foster a reflective capacity that could be measured in students’ writing. I decided to incorporate exemplars of reflective writing, while adding a learning activity to engage students in practicing how to expand their thinking and processing. It felt rewarding to observe each student as they tried to make sense of their internship experience and connect with career interests. I further analyzed how each student perceived their own reiteration of the internship, while also evaluating internship learning gaps. As I listened to the students’ expressions, it was clear they were all at different levels of processing and making meaning of deep reflective connections to the internship. From this, I concluded the best-suited assignment is one that allows students to journal the internship experience using guided questions. A journaling assignment is appropriate for first-year field students.

As a result of the changes made to the seminar meetings, the internship course was modified to remove the reflection summaries and to replace them with a journaling assignment. The changes were made after assessing that, as noted in Kitchener’s work, students’ reflective capacity cannot be easily assessed in a single assignment or semester. What is most appropriate for the internship learning, is allowing students to journal their experience and introduce critical thinking through guided questions. The changes provide clarity and support students towards developing clear purpose as they connect their field experience to human services career interests.

The second UDL+ 1 principle that was explored is Representation Options for Comprehension; checkpoints 3.1: activate or supply background knowledge, and 3.3: guide information processing and visualization. At this point in the training, I have come to terms with the lack of explicit instructions and flipped the reflection assignment to journaling. My goal was to think of other ways students can present their journal expressions. The traditional method of requiring students to submit an essay needed to be challenged. I added the option for video/audio submission, which allowed students to choose the best method to represent how they wanted to capture the internship experience. Students were given this option to include the UDL principle of multiple means of representing information. I revised the questions, added new ones with in-depth clarity, and included an exemplar for students to have a visual of a journal entry that would meet my expectation of the assignment. Students appreciate the added resource of an exemplar and often use it as a guide. Many students expressed feeling less anxious about figuring out how they should complete an assignment. The exemplar promotes confidence in the students that they are completing the assignment correctly; it also encourages them to ask questions after viewing the exemplar. The revisions offered students clarity on how to summarize events and express their emotions and reactions to the internship experience. While the goal is to support students in obtaining careers in human services, it is equally important for them to take ownership of the experience and decide on the best career fit. A well-documented journal helps students to navigate their future goals, and next steps.

The third and final component of the UDL +1 training is the group interview. My partner and I explored Appreciative Inquire and Action and Expression. I analyzed the reflection summary to determine which parts of the assignment I should keep and reviewed methods that work best to capture the students’ experience. I then generated a list of questions to ask students during the next seminar meeting. I found this action step necessary for assessing students’ understanding of the assignment instructions; I needed to engage them in the process of reviewing why the assignment instructions were unclear. I then decided on a plan of action for distributing my expectations to students by discussing with them the UDL training, goals of the journaling assignment, and the connection of achieving internship learning outcomes. Additional time was dedicated to discussing Expression and Communication, after noticing that multi-media was one area that had not been fully maximized in my communication of the assignment options — for example, allowing students to video/voice record their journaling and to create a video or written portfolio of their journal entries. It felt rewarding to allow students optimal opportunity to choose how they would like to represent their internship experience. This level of learner-choice allows students to “get in the zone” and truly engage in processing the internship experience.

Participating in the UDL +1 training while facilitating the internship seminar was by far the best approach to truly peeling back the layers of the reflection summary. Discovering its poor design allowed me to conclude it is not the best assessment to engage first-year practicum students. I can now engage in a purposeful and guided review on what is actually being taught in the seminar meetings. Allowing students to present their expressions and meet the course requirement is a direct result of the UDL process. They appear confident to connect with their practicum experience and future goals; it seemed as if the students were exploring and connecting with their reason for choosing the field of human services on a more goal-directed level. The quality of what students produced in their submissions improved tremendously —as evident in their grades earned. I observe less ambiguous writing and more thoughtful discussion on how the internship guides their professional goals. The UDL framework is a great tool to challenge some traditional teaching methods that are antiquated and does not place students front and center of the learning experience. Merida was right. “It is time to break tradition.” Perhaps it is time to challenge traditional teaching and learning, and employ strategies and principles that acknowledge a new partnership between faculty and students.

Learn more about Goodwin’s commitment to Universal Design for Learning and the Goodwin University Institute for Learning Innovation.

Learn more about the associate and bachelor’s degree programs in Human Services at Goodwin University.

Isalena Gilzene is an assistant professor in the Human Services program, and a UDL Teaching Fellow at Goodwin University. She currently serves as the program director and internship coordinator. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a Criminology focus from Eastern Connecticut State University, a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Connecticut.