"The Pod" Collaboration
Lake Forest College, Holly Swyers
At Lake Forest College, we are in the midst of revisiting First Year Studies and are looking at ways to improve students' transitions to college and to engage them in the liberal arts mission of the college. At the initial Teagle-sponsored workshop that led to the Collegium, three faculty members learned about recent scholarship on meta-cognition, aka thinking about how one learns. We could see potential value in having first year students become more aware of their own learning strategies and exposing them to new strategies. We also were struck by research that shows that students have difficulty seeing the interconnectedness of different facets of college life (academics, athletics, residence living, etc). With these issues in mind, we created a "pod" of first studies classes, described below under "context." We hoped to investigate the following questions: To what extent can meta-cognition serve as a shared frame for engaging students across disciplines and college roles? How does close collaboration between faculty members and other college professionals affect the experience of first year students?
Our questions were explored in three first year studies seminars, affecting a total of 46 students. First year studies at Lake Forest College is intended as a gateway class for all students to develop writing skills, form connections with classmates and with the college as a whole, and have regular contact with their first year advisors (the professors who teach each seminar also advise the students in that seminar). In practice, each seminar operated in relative isolation, with each faculty member left to his/her own devices to address various challenges that confronted members of his/her class. We established a learning community (a "pod") that would share a common idea, create a network of known campus professionals for students within the pod, and establish a pattern of collaboration and shared expertise among all members of the community.
The pod included a large number of campus personnel: the three faculty members teaching the included classes, an additional faculty member as a coordinator, a coach, a residence life professional, a public safety officer, a student affairs professional, and a learning support specialist. The general idea was that each member of the pod would be specifically introduced to the students in the pod in their professional capacity as a "point person" for different parts of the students' campus experience. Members of the pod met regularly and agreed on a shared language around meta-cognition to engage with students. Students were able to see the various faculty and campus professionals engaging with one another regularly and were encouraged to see how ways of thinking could translate between different disciplines and different aspects of college life. Whole pod meetings (including students and professionals) were held six times and timed to address different stress points in the semester.
The shared language for all our activities was a drawn from a document called "Learning to Learn" created by Karl Wirth and Dexter Perkins. Everyone in the pod (students and professionals) read this document, and classes used a variety of meta-cognitive strategies Dr. Wirth presented at Teagle meetings. Many of these strategies boiled down to providing students a framework for reflecting on their work and their habits, allowing them to recognize patterns that were successful - or not - for them. Students learned to talk about the similarities between their courses and to ask what counts as evidence and argument in different scenarios. The pod concluded with a symposium (called "the podosium") in which each class did a collaborative presentation about their learning over the semester. This capstone experience provided the "a-ha" moment for many students, and the built in audience of the pod gave the event stakes without making it intimidating.
Within the course of the semester, the collaboration between teaching faculty and college professionals created new networks and opportunities for working with students that will have lasting effects. The idea that any participant, whether a coach, a residence life professional, a learning specialist, a public safety officer or a professor, shared a goal of helping students succeed was kept explicitly at the center of all activities. This helped produce new habits of reaching out to other departments and professionals during the course of the semester, a different kind of targeted intervention for some students, and an apparent confidence among students in terms of navigating between different aspects of college life.
Conclusions and Evidence
In terms of student learning or understanding, the measures available tend to be suggestive rather than definitive. What emerged via interviews and surveys is that students felt better informed about how to navigate the college from an earlier point in the semester. They were enthusiastic about the social opportunities presented by the pod.
Academically, they cited two pod-specific events that were significant:
a) a pod meeting held around warning grade time, where they had a chance to hear about other students' experience with warning grades and talk to one another about their difficulties in college in the first six weeks. Students who mentioned this meeting commented on how it helped them realize that others were experiencing similar problems.
b) the "podosium," an end-of-semester gathering where students had an opportunity to present what they had learned over the course of the semester to other pod classes and visiting students from a high school. For many students, this event was a source of pride, and they were pleased to see for themselves how far they had come and what they had learned.
Perhaps more significant, though, was the experience of the campus professionals involved in the pod. While the pod did create more work in the form of meetings and syllabus revision, most participants cited the new relationships formed with other parts of the campus community. In addition, the need to meet created space for conversations that normally don't get to happen during the course of the semester, ranging from dealing with specific students to general pedagogical issues.
Over the long term, some early signs of pod effectiveness has been the willingness of students to approach pod professionals and see them as part of the students' web of resources. This ranged from students choosing classes because they were taught by other pod members to earlier visits to learning support services due to pod involvement.
On one level, this experiment reveals nothing new: voluntary collaboration helps buoy professionals and creates a broader range of experience and support for students. The real break-through here is the value of a shared vocabulary for talking about what is happening in student learning. The meta-cognition frame proved adaptable by all members of the pod, so students would hear the same ideas in the classroom, in the dorm, in study sessions and on the playing field. Most members found the principles very similar to ideas they already had in practice, so the real value was in helping students see that the overriding premise of all their college activities (except keggers, which provided lessons the next morning...) was consistent.
I really like the collaboration model and the cross-disciplinary, cross-professional links. That said, such collaboration won't work if it is forced. The existence of the model within my institution makes it available to groups that want to work together, and we have documented our process and created materials that our learning and teaching center can use to help groups re-create the experiment. In the immediate future, I think we are best served by different groups using the pod model to test its potential and limits.
To use in class:
- Wirth, Karl and Dexter Perkins. 2009. Learning to Learn. Available from:
Ideas on techniques and strategies:
- Wirth, Karl and Dexter Perkins. 2005. Knowledge Surveys: An Indispensable Course Design and Assessment Tool. Innovations in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (conference proceedings).
Available from http://www.macalester.edu/geology/wirth/WirthPerkinsKS.pdf
Useful for thinking about the relationship of the whole college experience to the liberal arts curriculum:
- King, Patricia and JoNes VanHecke. 2006. Using Skill Theory to Recognize How Students Build and Rebuild Understanding. About Campus. March/April: 12-16.
- King, Patricia et al. 2007. Liberal Arts Student Learning Outcomes: An Integrated Approach. About Campus. September/October: 2-9.
Recommended with ambivalence:
- Nathan, Rebekah. 2006. My Freshman Year. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
I did not find Nathan's text particularly revelatory except inasmuch as it drove home how removed from undergraduates a professor can be at a large university. However, her observations regarding the splintering effects of the dizzying array of campus activities are worth thinking about, and the book takes all of an afternoon to read.