By: Academics at Stanford

Photo credit: Matt Rothe

Photo credit: Matt Rothe

Geologist Kate Maher first came to the in 2014 to run some experiments on herself: specifically, how she could alter physical environments in a classroom to foster different types of student learning. She taught her regular isotope geochemistry class in several different spaces at the, and worked with the’s Director of Teaching & Learning Carissa Carter to design a set of intentional experiments.

The constraints of each different space -- and the assets within them -- provoked new and unexpected insights. Some days there were no traditional tables or desks. Some days the students sat in a close circle. As a result, Kate began to see a broader range of interactions happening between students, and notable differences in how they were engaging both with the content and with her as the professor.  

One of her insights was around the value of having students work in teams on whiteboards and make their work visible to other students, even on relatively routine mathematical tasks. Kate began to see students spotting mistakes that others were making, or exploring different strategies and approaches to solving problems. She now thinks of these as “experiential problem sets.” This more transparent approach to learning now allows her to have a much deeper understanding of where individual students are struggling or excelling, and she can make real-time decisions about how to guide or how to push them.

Based on this set of experiments, Kate then recruited a colleague from the School of Earth, Energy, and the Environment, Rosemary Knight, to experiment with this type of transparency and interaction. Rosemary took the evaluation of her own course experiment to an even deeper level, inviting the Center for Teaching & Learning to assess the class she taught. The experts from CTL saw some exceptional outcomes, and Rosemary felt like she finally found a course format that worked for her.

Both professors are now taking what they developed at the and applying it to courses that they teach within SEEE. Something both found notable is that students reported having “fun” in class. This fall, Kate overheard one of her students say, “This is the class I never want to end.” And another said, “All classes should be taught this way. No more lectures!

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