Xiani Zhong

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Enhance classroom dynamic, make friends with your classmates

UW professor to enhance classroom dynamic, change way students choose Gen Ed requirements

Making friends with classmates can help students learn more easily

· Apr 4, 2016
(Read the story online)
While University of Wisconsin students are beginning to register for courses for the fall semester, one UW professor is looking to reform the registration system so students can easily find classes they are more likely to enjoy.

General education requirement recommendation

Harry Brighouse, a UW philosophy professor who specialized in educational policy studies, said he believes a better way students can choose their general education requirement classes is through implementing a course recommendation and reviewing system.

A course recommendation system — much like Amazon’s “maybe you’ll also like…” suggestion pop-up when someone makes a purchase — will be effective to help students find classes they are most likely to enjoy based on classes they have taken, Brighouse said.

UW students usually share information about what classes they like and make recommendations to friends, Brighouse said, which inspired his idea.

General education requirements, or GER, is a list of classes each university picks to ensure every student gets the essential skills and knowledge needed for an undergraduate education, according to UW’s GER website.

To achieve the goal, most institutions have consistent requirements that include courses in communication, reasoning, diversity and breadth across disciplines, Elaine Klein, university general education director, said.

Each institution, however, has the freedom to customize their requirements, and UW has a different approach from many other universities that require students to take the same courses, Klein said.

“We have what some describe as a ‘cafeteria-style’ GER program, where we have a lot of courses from which students can choose to meet the requirements,” Klein said. “Our approach makes sense, I think, because we have a lot of students who have very different interests and needs.”

Brighouse agreed the current GER system works fine, but said he wants to add something for the students’ convenience. He is now in the process of gathering opinions from students and colleagues before making a formal proposal to school officials, he said.

Klein said Brighouse’s suggestion is interesting, but is likely to limit students’ chances of discovering interesting classes with topics they might not typically choose.

“I would hope that there would be room for students to take and fall in love with courses they never imagined they’d enjoy, and it’s hard for an ‘if you liked this, try that’ algorithm to predict those sorts of things,” Klein said.

Shifting the classroom dynamic

Besides choosing courses based on their established interests, Brighouse has another idea to help students enjoy their class materials.

In the 25 years Brighouse has taught at UW, he noticed students don’t tend to make friends with their classmates inside of the classroom.

“In my observation, students socialize not around their academic classes, but around their dorms and their student organizations,” Brighouse said. “The students they socialize with are not students that they’re learning with, and I think it’s a bad thing for the students and their learning.”

In the small-scale classes he teaches, Brighouse encourages students to get to know one another. He would require them to introduce themselves repeatedly at the beginning of every class to deepen the impression, he said.

For bigger classes he would assign students to write online notes for one another’s work, ensuring they read both the class material and their peers’ understanding of it.

“The hunch is that if they are talking with people they are taking classes with, there is a chance that they will talk about what’s going on in class,” Brighouse wrote in a blog post.

Michaela Holzhuter, a student in the seminar about higher education Brighouse teaches currently, can attest to his method.

Holzhuter said Brighouse runs his classes differently from other professors as he encourages students to speak their own minds instead of lecturing by himself all the time.

“He actually cares about our learning and he knows that as a teacher and an instructor at the university, it’s his job to do that,” Holzhuter said. “[He] makes us comfortable speaking in our own words about academic topics, and really delving into them beyond textbooks, with our minds.”

Brighouse said the outcome of this practice has been successful.

He said he has noticed students talk about course contents outside of class with friends, relatives and classmates. Some of them even reflected that the only friends they made from class in college were made in Brighouse’s class.

“Prior to his class I thought that you have to have a prescribed opinion in order to share it in the class and have that opinion valued, whereas Harry put it in our hands,” Holzhuter said. “If we have an argument that we have analytically developed or spent some time thinking about, that is worth sharing and that is how we learn.”

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