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Editor’s Note: Dr. Bensusan infused his students
with a love for learning. His innovative methods of teaching and learning
pioneered much of what has become “best practice” in distance learning.
He developed successful models to integrate interaction, dialog, and motivational
techniques into classes presented via interactive television (NAUNET)
and online learning. He served as mentor, catalyst, and teacher. This
article explains the theory and practice behind what is now known as “the
Vintage Bensusan: Beyond Teaching
September 28, 1996
As we have developed our efforts through various stages
of "teaching off-campus" to "teaching on-line," it
has become clear that Distance Learning and Traditional Teaching require
distinctive considerations, methods and institutional mechanisms. With
Virtuality now staring us in the face, we can no longer postpone making
educational changes without risking disturbing consequences. Virtuality
also affects us in the briefcase, heart, wallet, character and standing.
Filling up valuable and costly class-time with information
videotapes, software-supported presentations or pre-prepared lectures
so that students take notes to memorize and feedback on standardized in-class
tests is no longer adequate. Grade curves judge, isolate and diminish
rather than encourage learning growth. We know all of this, having read
the literature, listened to the debates and watched the indicators. Some
faculty have redesigned what they do and how they do it, but the overall
effort has been minimal and marginal.
More, much more is needed. To shift from Traditional
Teaching and Testing to a genuine Learning Paradigm, we MUST re-engineer
the system, making basic structural changes in the essence as well as
the substance of what we do. We need to reframe our thinking, organization,
mindsets, traditions, methods, data transfer, assignments and homework,
as well as how we model constructive classroom behavior, ethical academic
conduct, evaluate student work, provide meaningful feedback and establish
adequate evaluation of learning.
We must also transform roles and functions, and redefine
our traditional assumptions and attitudes about student competence, ambitions,
achievements and inducements. We must show students how to find (or rediscover)
the satisfaction, value and outright fun of learning for the rest of their
lives. Our prior procrastination does not mean we cannot face reality.
Moving into the learning paradigm takes much consideration, reflection,
planning and struggle, and while we encourage students to face up to their
learning disabilities, we also must confront our own "teaching disabilities."
Still, the most common assertion I hear from colleagues
who want to move in this direction is, "I know that I have to make
these changes and I agree they are important, but I am absolutely clueless
on exactly what to do, where to start or how to go about it! And I don't
want to make a fool of myself with the students, nor get into trouble
with the other professors in my department!!"
The purpose of this essay is to help, to offer descriptions
and suggestions based on what I have learned about course redesign, alternative
procedures and learner-centered methods which have worked for me during
sixty-plus on-line offerings I have taught in the arts and humanities
to multiple simultaneous classrooms. Ideas about building a course around
site-based materials and assignments are included. I also pass on ideas
from several colleagues who have undertaken their own odysseys into online
teaching in sciences, social sciences, education, business, management
and professional schools.
Invariably the story is the same: it involves extensive
thinking and hard work; it takes several semesters to construct the new
system; you don't learn everything all at once; every academic area or
part of the curriculum seems to respond to the concept even if specifics
will vary; criticism, mockery and opposition may arise from unconvinced
(and threatened?) peers (though I certainly find less of that now than
I used to).
On the other hand, respect and dedicated effort to
learn will come from most students; cheating will diminish; evolving results
will be highly rewarding; and after it all comes together you will be
amazed at how simple it is and wonder why it took so long to "take
the road less traveled." (Is that less-traveled road fast becoming
While the redesigning process is based on many changes,
three aspects are most important. The first of these is the need to free-up
class time so that it can be used for something besides "data-dump."
Students must learn course information in other ways besides taking notes
during lecture. The second is a need to help students understand that
learning is akin to a stairway, each step involving additional information
and a different level of awareness.
The third is learners have to learn at their own pace,
in their own way, making their own discoveries and connections, and in
accord with their own learning metabolisms. Linking these together we
might suggest the need for a group of learners to interact together on
the stairway with useful toys provided by the responsible leader, who
encourages innovation and "puttings-together," while providing
a comfortable and non-threatening atmosphere for experimentation. Much
more productive and enjoyable learning and sharing will take place under
these conditions than under a regimented set of tasks which demand lock-step
An additional consideration relates to achieving effective
learning results: teacher's attitude. If the teacher thinks of him/herself
as the expert and the students as dummies, that assumption is projected
and the self-fulfilling prophecy will come to pass. Telling jokes about
the "stupid things" students do in class may create camaraderie
in the faculty lounge, but is counterproductive, cruel, and evokes resentment
in the very people you are trying to exercise leadership with.
We should not delude ourselves about this: students
are the ones who sit in our classrooms every day and are just as smart
as any other animal at sensing whether we are trustworthy or arrogant,
sincere or contemptuous, kind or sarcastic. They know whether we are truly
interested in assisting learning or whether we are wasting their time
and money by just putting in a minimal effort to earn our salaries for
what we may really be here for -- doing our research and writing so as
to become big-time figures in our fields!
The idea of teacher as scholar, savant, guru or expert
often hinders the assistance of learning. The expert is assumed to be
the authority, source of information and fountain of knowledge rather
than a learner-helper or fellow learner. This implication of transfer
from authority to student is thus vertical, while questioning the professor's
authority becomes both highly personal and potentially dangerous, especially
if the authority is strongly partisan in support of a specific school
of thought or slant of interpretation, and is vindictive against opponents.
Real learning comes from within, helped by lateral input and support.
While it is obvious that a teacher IS expert, and thus
from one perspective SHOULD be choosing what the student should learn,
this outlook focuses upon the TEACHING paradigm side of things. It fails
to consider the LEARNING PARADIGM, the LEARNER'S needs or what the LEARNER
must do to develop the learning. If the teacher is able to think back
to what he or she had to do when learning a subject, it might become easier
to make the shift of paradigms. Perhaps we need to return to what our
lives were like when we were beginning to learn -- before we became experts.
As learner, the student is not an empty vessel, but
rather comes to the learning table with assumptions and sets of ideas
and beliefs absorbed from the environment over the years. In this way
of looking at things, the teacher needs to anticipate what the student
must do in order to learn, and therefore set up a series of learning experiences
in such a way that the student can make discovery after discovery by him
Frankly, if teachers honestly look back to their learning
days, they will have to admit that their teachers did not TEACH them.
Rather they themselves did the learning. The only difference now is that
the teachers can consciously formulate and organize the various interesting
and enjoyable exercises, simulations, games, and other formulae which
will let the student "play, practice, and learn." If the teachers
can also establish opportunities for the student to react and reflect
upon the principles and ideas which have been learned, an entire shift
from teaching to learning will have been accomplished.
Therefore, if the teacher is willing to tell students
that s/he only is expert in one part of the larger subject, that s/he
has questions on which interpretations and directions are most accurate,
and that disputes exist within the field even if the teacher has already
taken sides, a major step has been taken. And when the teacher can assume
the role of older, experienced learner and fellow explorer in examining
various approaches, ideas and points of view along with the students,
another trait emerges in which the very useful habits of questioning,
weighing ideas, comparing sources, probing assumptions and thinking holistically
are practiced by the students -- who are, after all, the ones who truly
need that opportunity. I learned long ago that every time I read my "favorite
lecture" to students, it was I who was reinforced in the ideas! I
got more out of it than they did.
Some teachers express fear they will lose control of
the class, that students will get lazy and fail to respect them if they
acknowledge their own feet of clay, get down off their pedestals, and
cut back on performing with their "brilliant recitations." My
own experiences tell me this is NOT TRUE. What I have seen is that much
more appreciation and far deeper respect accrues to those teachers who
display honesty and willingness to risk behaving as genuine and sincere
humans, to those who are willing to work to help develop learning in students.
Yes, it is hard to give up old habits we enjoy and are used to, but when
we do, and can refocus our efforts in the direction of learning, we reach
new levels of achievement and understanding.
Likewise, in classroom brainstorming sessions (also
known as discussion), students will often say something quite "off
the wall." If the teacher says, "No, you are wrong," the
sudden exercise of authority in what had been up to that point an open,
safe and enjoyable activity will affect both the student who was corrected
and the rest of the audience; basic trust will have to be rebuilt from
scratch. It is far more productive to explore the "dumb" idea
with students and let them discover if it does not compute -- the teacher
behavior modeled in this approach continuously builds student confidence
and willingness to take risks. Having said this, let us first enumerate
and subsequently explain the many parts of teaching which need to be redesigned
in the shift toward learning. I have listed twelve areas -- we must make
changes in ALL OF THEM; if we only change one or two, we are merely using
a bandaid instead of pursuing all parts of a necessary structural redesign.
The twelve are:
- Use various out-of-class alternatives for transfer
of course content
- Create useful tools and visual models to awaken
ideas and connections
- Design learning experiences for students to engage
in during class time
- Formulate individualized assignments in several
ascending steps and levels
- Organize and implement multilevel, cooperative,
- Establish options to help students cope with access
limits and inequities
- Reward GROWTH; transform apparent misdirections
into beneficial experiences
- Develop after-class exercises where students can
interact, build and learn
- Construct grading on personal effort, persistence,
evolution and enlightenment
- Utilize portfolios for students to accumulate evidence
of their learning growth
- Help students investigate; ask question to denote
and explore relationships
- Use many return visits for idea reinforcement rather
than a single immersion.
Let us examine these one at a time.
1. Use various out-of-class alternatives for transfer
of course content
The traditional path here is either to present the
material in class lecture or to engage in class work out of a textbook,
or to use the lecture to contrast and/or supplement what is in the text.
(I even know one teacher who reads to his adult students from the textbook.
All that is visible is the top of his head, and the students are furious
about it, claiming they know how to read. They object, write letters,
complain to the chair, and things stay the same, semester after semester,
since the course is "required" in that major.)
Are there alternatives? Many! One is to assign the
text chapters to be read for each class session -- but I already hear
someone thinking, "Oh, they won't read it, and so I will have to
give a test to force them" -- which leads us to the asic nature of
behavioral change and the perils of power. Yes, we can force students
to function out of fear, and since they want to pass and graduate, many
of them will do exactly what they must to get by. But I assume we seek
to help learners find something of value and enjoyment rather than function
on the coercive level.
Changing behavior takes time, patience and requires
willingness to show helpfulness. Therefore, were I to use the textbook
approach, I would make short assignments, and also write some study guide
and discussion questions so that the students would come back to the classroom
with some focused ideas about which parts of the assignment were more
important than others. Then we would discuss those in class, and my role
would be that of discussion leader -- one who would be patient and sufficiently
dexterous verbally so as to evoke from many of the students their own
perceptions and explanations about what they had read.
By the third week however, I would change the game
a bit. Rather than create written questions for the students, I would
ask the students to write one or two of their own which could evoke discussion,
and have the questions turned in as an assignment before class. They would
get credit for their questions, and I would then use them for the basis
of class discussion that day.
After doing this for awhile I would change things again,
increasing the number of questions and also adding some type of justification
as to why their specific question was selected, why it was worded in that
manner, and how did that topic relate to the larger subject? In other
words, the process would be a step-to-step exploration on the stairway
of the ascending order of skills which the teacher knows is necessary
to gain higher understanding of the subject.
Since I often must go to meetings or conferences, once
students are active in discussion, I would ask them to continue by themselves,
rather than giving them "the day off," or get a substitute or
a film. They ARE paying for instruction in the subject, and I AM trying
to help them learn how to learn. I will ask for a volunteer student or
two to moderate, set up areas for discussion and provide some guidelines
and hints for getting over rough spots.
Contrary to what one might fear, most students will
honor the confidence displayed, will attend, will participate, and it
is more than likely that students who have heretofore been intimidated
by the teacher's presence in the classroom will begin to participate when
that presence is less overt. Having gone over the hump once, that person
will usually become part of the discussion from that point on.
My own courses are interdisciplinary, and since it
has been difficult to find a text which treated the course in the way
I wanted to, I wrote my own text chapters, my artist wife drew maps and
illustrations, and we published it inexpensively at a local copy shop.
I went through the same cycle with discussion questions as has been mentioned
above, doing it all at first and gradually backing away as the students
became able to handle it themselves.
Part of my spiel to them is that they must learn how
to become self-reliant in our subject before the end of the semester,
because I will not be around after that. It works -- when they consider
the implications, nearly all the students choose self-direction as a goal
to achieve. Thus, I also must devise a stairway of assignments which will
help them move in that direction on their own (more about that in number
Another choice is to have the students present the
text information to the class. This can be most interesting, especially
if you set up teams to handle different parts of it, and if you also have
at least two different persons or groups working on each part. The nature
of competition will help each group want to make sure that their colleagues
"tell it right," and include all the necessary parts.
A follow-up exercise can be the writing of useful questions
for discussion, study or for an examination. Once again, dividing the
chores among small groups, different classroom sites evoke collaboration
and expanded awareness. As the sayings go, "many hands make less
work," and "different eyes see more things." In any case,
useful behavior is modeled, and cooperation is encouraged.
The writing of questions by students naturally involves
some explanation and helpful demonstration. In the effort to foster discussion
one seeks questions which will serve as an onramp for expanding inquiry,
illuminating relationships and hooking up with other levels of comprehension.
"When did Columbus arrive in the Caribbean, what is the name of the
tallest peak in the Americas, and where is Trinidad," are less conversationally
productive than "What genetic consequences derived from Columbus's
voyage, how did the tallest peak affect relations between Argentina and
Chile and what impact did the location of Curacao have on Latin American
Colonial as well as National trade?"
In all of these activities several accomplishments
are noticeable: students are active rather than passive, they are handling
the information in useful ways rather than recording information for future
learning, and they will go beyond the data itself into other levels of
inquiry about causes, consequences, alternative explanations and different
ways to prioritize importance. In facilitating this, the professor has
automatically shifted roles; no longer the provider of information, but
rather the helper of learning. Restating the parable, instead of giving
the fish to the students so they are provided with one semester's meal,
the teacher has shown them how to fish and let them practice, promoting
2. Create useful tools and visual models to awaken
ideas and connections
The professor can invent useful "formulas"
or "recipes," can show students how they can be used, help them
practice, and encourage them to make their own applications which they
subsequently may share with other students. For example, some ten years
ago I developed a six-part paradigm about how human expressions evolve
I called it the Hexadigm:
It has been an incredibly valuable tool for assisting
learning to take place, and is clearly applicable far beyond my initial
intent to develop a device for dealing with the evolution of the Americas.
At first I was interested in how music, art, dance, architecture, religion,
history and language developed as resident natives met arriving Europeans
plus the Africans they transported to the New World during the Colonial
Era. Hence the cultural sequences led to mutual influences which varied
in each place for topographic and demographic reasons.
About the time of Independence, new inventions in mining,
transportation, manufacturing and agriculture created an acceleration.
The rule became "More and Faster" -- and as American nations
became independent from mother countries, additional cultural sequences
arrived to settle in both older and younger locations, thus speeding up
and adding to the mutuality of influences, which in themselves varied
greatly depending on the exact location, elevation, ethnic ratios and
local history. The velocity of cultural change accelerated as more ethnic
groups came together into the mix and as new products dictated the need
for additional resources, which were often found in places that had not
been as important during the older economies of colonial times.
Thus nitrates for fertilizer, copper for electrification,
rubber for tires, and petroleum for kerosene, natural gas and gasoline
led to struggles for control of those resources. This led to wars which
redefined boundaries, while new inventions such as motion pictures, recorded
sound, aviation and tourism, continued to expand information and methods
for studying the present and the past. It also continued to bring people
together who influenced each other more rapidly and in diverse ways, again
depending upon location. Fresh inventions opened up new economic and life
opportunities, leading to the need for institutions to adapt to newer
conditions. Increased information changed academic study, forcing revision
of dictionaries and encyclopedias. And it continues.
My initial application also evolved. The first step
came when a Zoology student challenged the Hexadigm by saying he was a
scientist and the model was clearly not applicable to science. I leaped
to the defense of "my invention" by asking if all of the animals
in the Western Hemisphere had arrived at the same time, and would that
constitute Cultural Sequences in Zoology? When he agreed, I followed by
asking how he thought the introduction of new animals affected the ones
already there. We rapidly moved through the rest of the model without
difficulty, and from that time on, I included the history of all of the
sciences and engineering in the list of topics which students might choose
from. Some extraordinary projects have resulted since then.
The next stage came when a group of international students
enrolled in my course during summer. One was from India, another from
the Ukraine and a third from Israel. They immediately saw the Hexadigm
as a way to briefly describe the history of their respective cultures
to Americans without bogging down in national dates and details. Additional
experiences with students in many fields have now led me to the conclusion
that the Hexadigm works with any Human Construct; whatever humans have
put together into a field of study or academic discipline can be investigated
through the six steps.
A major advantage over traditional methods that focus
on nationality or principles or significant leaders is that all aspects
of the construct are involved, and the approach by location, by discipline
or by multiculturality is inclusive rather than exclusive. I can easily
help students learn a history of epistemology as well as a history of
clothing, dance, foods, festivals, religion or weaving.
The Hexadigm worked well, but needed to go farther.
I added a second model called The Ladder. It began as sixteen different
levels of comprehension, beginning at the bottom and working upward, but
there were too many parts for students to remember effectively, so I condensed
them to a model of eight stages, each "rung" an aid in examining
& School of Thought
In this model, I try to make students aware that whatever
they decide about something, other approaches to the subject exist. For
instance, in one course, Popular Arts, we study the love tragedy of Carmen
and Jose by examining how the story is told through fifteen different
art forms. Thinking about the story through the Hexadigm will take the
students in an evolutionary direction, and is clearly a useful exercise.
They can do it for themselves and thereby become educated in the process.
When we switch to The Ladder we move from evolution to analysis.
Thus, the first rung, or reactive response, allows
the students to love Carmen and hate Jose (or vice-versa) -- but we cannot
allow them to stay in mere reaction; they don't pay tuition for that;
they must climb the ladder. We go to the second rung in which it is obvious
that a story has an introduction, development and conclusion, that each
character has qualities, that the interaction of characters is made to
occur by the author who is using devices, props and techniques to get
the audience to take sides.
Then we move to the fact that Jose was Basque, Carmen
was a Gypsy, and the author of the novel was a French man writing about
a Spanish woman for an audience of French men, and that we who are the
teacher and students are North American! It is immediately obvious that
several national and cultural points of view must be considered in any
analysis of meaning.
The next level takes us to our sources of information.
Which Carmen are we looking at? The novel was written in 1845; the opera
in 1875. And both of those were in France in contrast to the first silent
movies, which were made in the USA in 1916. There was a Russian ballet,
a Spike Jones musical parody, a puppet show, Carmen on Ice, a Black-Face
Musical, a stage play, and so on. Will the Real Carmen please stand up?
Each Carmen gives us different information about gender issues as well
as storytelling. Each Carmen has a different author -- each author a different
slant on the story. Should we relate each to time and place?
As we get into purposes and schools of thought, it
is clear that author-Merimee had his own, while musician-Bizet was thinking
in another manner. Obviously one wrote a novel and the other an opera;
the former had one woman in the story with nothing to compare her to,
while the latter contrasted a pure and rather uninteresting girl with
a "sexy devil!" The first story was more about the demise of
a man in the tragic tradition, while caught between cultures. The latter
was more about Grand Opera, contrasts of female and male types, and the
violent ending of a man who could not simply smile and walk away. The
amount of material for learning is infinite.
Related to The Ladder is another model, a red stop-sign
titled Bias. It shows point of view in the physical sense of where one
is when something is seen -- that is, what angle of vision exists, and
what can you not see because of that? It also considers other aspects
of bias, such as parental training, religion, ethnicity, social conditioning,
nationality, gender, and which academic field one's professional training
is in. While one aspect of bias relates to each student, it also relates
to the professor, as well as to the various authors or sources of information
which the student will use.
These models, and several others which I have developed
for specific uses, are extremely valuable in my effort to turn the learning
over to the students and let them argue over it, making their respective
cases by balancing ideas, historical factors, arts techniques, where the
information came from, how the concepts were portrayed or conveyed, and
The question of meaning is always there, the argument
over "proper" interpretation is endless, and while I will occasionally
reveal my own views on the subject, the most important development comes
from students making their own choices based on factors which they have
learned, reflected on, balanced and articulated. Students return years
afterwards to tell me that while they still remember the course subject
matter, their greatest gain came from learning the tools and being able
later to apply them in real life.
3. Design learning experiences for students to engage
in during class time
Some of this has already been mentioned in the previous
sections. Between the textbook and the models, there is plenty to design
learning experiences from. Moreover, since students will frequently create
projects for a course and leave them with me, I have an ample supply of
examples which we can examine, analyze, compare, contrast, and otherwise
In my mind, what is most important is that class time
is extremely valuable. If we take the accountancy approach and figure
out how much it costs for each student, each classroom assistant, each
maintenance and student support facility plus library, registrar and other
administrative, custodial and technical personnel, as well as technology
and physical plant costs, to say nothing of the individual person- hours
of students, tuition, textbooks and travel -- NOT ONE MINUTE OF COSTLY
CLASS TIME SHOULD BE WASTED WITH DATA TRANSFER OR TESTS!
I have concluded, based on almost half a century of
teaching experience, that the most valuable thing our paying customers
(previously known as students) can do during expensive class time is to
practice using information about the subject they study, to think about
it in various ways, practice applying the formulas to the ideas, practice
debating the levels, meanings, interpretations, and alternative ways of
Class time should provide an opportunity for individual
learning growth in every conceivable aspect of thinking about and interpreting
the subject, arguing which interpretation is most supported by the evidence,
comparing the various information sources providing the evidence, and
relating the explanations to schools of thought and interpretation spectrum.
4. Formulate individualized assignments in several
ascending steps and levels
One way of considering course assignments is in the
tradition of two dimensions: do you want them to go broad and shallow
or narrow and deep in their gathering of information? One can make a good
argument either way: the teacher provides information on many components
which relate to the larger picture, or s/he presents them with layers
of profound intricacies of a single facet. For example, we can contrast
the survey approach with a case study. We can also combine both those
teaching activities, with the teacher covering the field while also spending
significant time on one feature in depth.
When we switch to the Learning Paradigm, we have other
options. For instance, in Arizona, I teach interactively over two-way
NAUNet television with twelve classroom sites. Each of these varies in
location, elevation, local history, ethnic ratios and ways of life. In
my course on American Ethnic Arts and Culture, I can move to an approach
called "theme and variation," bringing in students at all sites
as contributors to class content (assistant adjunct professors). My job
as teacher is to create the overall theme, while the students establish
the variations. I will select several general areas for the course members
to work on about Arizona arts and culture, such as architecture, local
monuments and parks, galleries, and development of tourism.
I will then have the students help me decide the order
for discussing the topics, assigning them a first essay in which they
will write about their perceptions of each: how they function in the respective
communities. They must do this from their pre-existing knowledge and imagination
-- they must not research the topic. While they do that, I make brief
and generalized presentations about each of the topics as one might find
described in a general textbook.
Then I ask each student to do the research necessary
for essay two, which will be to see how the factual information they locate
compares with their first, non-documented essay plus my "generalized
overview." In these three activities, we have explored research design,
follow-up data, and contrast of generalized theme with local variation.
In class, the students present their findings and compare
divergences of variation from the general picture as told by me, as well
as contrast emphases in the actual examples the students bring in about
architecture, museums, tourist promotion, and so on. As we do this during
class time, the students also must begin work on their third essay by
going back to some of their most valuable information sources, comparing
them, examining the slants and positions taken and in general evaluating
their validity. Now we are ready for the fourth essay, in which they will
synthesize all the parts, creating a composite and higher level of comprehension
about specific arts and culture elements across the state.
These principles and applications have worked so well
in the initial semesters, that funding has been provided to carry it farther
next spring. This approach could easily be used in geology, botany, anthropology,
ornithology, local history, folk pharmacopoeia, regional painters, a study
of authors, the prime local economy, and so on -- any subject in which
the regionality of the classrooms would allow students to learn and contribute
to course content by contrasting their variations with the generalized
overview themes presented by the professor. In this situation the students
and the professor are truly fellow learners, and the effect upon student
motivation and confidence is totally positive. The potential for each
course to write its own book or make videos for publication and further
learner-helping is extraordinary, to say nothing of the potential royalties.
Another way to design ascending levels of skills in
a course whose subject matter does not easily lend itself to theme and
variation is to use the four assignments as successive explorations of
ever-more complex and sophisticated skills. An example might develop from
the Hexadigm model: Creation Myths as told by the Natives, then the earliest
settlers, then their various folk combinations, and so on.
In such a development, the student would first look
into one area of information, then a second, then a third, each time comparing
and contrasting the later versions with the former, and also seeing who
preferred which versions of the stories. Or, the story of a particular
group of people could be explored using evidence from cultural insiders,
from outsiders, from later literature, from movies, and from current syntheses.
The point of the assignment is that a student will
begin by going inside her or himself to see what is already known and
how it is perceived. When the second stage, library research or other
database use is reached, there is a point of comparison-contrast, and
the student has taken several mental steps forward.
In a third stage, where authors are evaluated and compared,
the student has moved beyond treating the topic factually and is now considering
ways of perceiving it. The fourth step can allow the student to actually
play with simulations of telling the story from the points of view of
several schools of interpretation, traditional, modern and post-modern.
One might object here that the student has not been
exposed to "all the facts about the subject under study," but
a twofold response might be that the data was in the textbook which the
student read and discussed, while the many levels of perception and interpretation
the student actually learned and practiced are what give meaning to all
the raw data and information. Considering that the databases are in constant
evolution, the foundations and elements of interpretation may well be
more valuable to lifelong learning in the long run.
5. Organize and implement multi-level, cooperative
mutually helpful feedback
What we have not yet dealt with is the way in which
the student finds out about being on or off target. We have lengthy traditions
on this, deeply believed by many teachers and many students -- "the
teacher should read the work submitted for credit." While this assertion
can certainly be examined from many directions, one solid and inescapable
reality is that the teacher has both the responsibility and the authority
over grading. Over the years, I have presumed this means determining the
individual grade and also DETERMINING HOW THE GRADES SHALL BE DETERMINED.
Since I have found that my authority is seldom questioned
when I offer an opinion on the depth, breadth, quality, profundity, substantiation
and number of levels of interpretation in a student's work, I have concluded
that I want the student to tell me about those things with some degree
of accuracy and perspective. If the student cannot do that, there is no
way they can decide upon the value of my decision other than to accept
or reject my judgment. Therefore, I want more than one level of assessment
One of these will be self-assessment. The student will
read his/her own work, read other students' work and compare several criteria
of judgment about organization, clarity, use of sources, solidity of argument,
and so on. After doing that once, the student should be able to assess
his/her own work with a critical essay, and award a grade based on that.
Secondly, when students read each other's essays and
evaluate each other's work (gently and in writing), extensive learning
takes place, and confidence grows in the ability to evaluate beyond the
euphemistic, "that was good, I liked it" level. Thus, in my
courses I ask all students to perform these tasks and present me with
their findings AT THE END OF THE COURSE, after they have read all four
of their essays, have seen and reflected upon their growth, and had that
experience with at least one of their peers.
Oh yes, I also read their essays. I used to gather
them each time, read them and feed back to them how they were doing. I
found that most of them took MY advice rather than exploring their own
questions, which is probably a holdover from their conditioning. (It still
takes me several weeks to get them to stop asking me what I want and expect.)
Now they put all their work in their portfolios (having
informed me that they have completed that phase of the course), and I
collect everything in the final week so that I can examine the growth.
I seldom find that the student has really overassessed -- and I frequently
display one of my little signs on the board or the pad-camera which says
in big letters, OVER-ACHIEVERS UNDER-ASSESS, AND VICE VERSA!"
In several years of doing this I have also found that
in most cases the students are far more demanding for themselves than
for their peers. They become adept at seeking out their own strengths
and weaknesses. Apart from the occasional blowhard, self-gratulator and
con-man/woman (who usually get deflated by their peers), I find their
self- and peer assessments to be very reasonable, extensive, and mature.
I wonder if the self-fulfilling prophecy is at work here? Having been
given responsibility and liberty of choice and development, may they be
rising to the occasion?
6. Establish options to help students cope with
access limits and inequities
When all students are on the same campus, the one who
gets to the library first can check out the needed books and materials,
the second person gets what is left and the third is out of luck. We do
not usually think about the potential inequities here, perhaps rationalizing
that "the early bird gets the worm." When students are paying
for learning, however, it would seem this philosophy is out of place,
with the teacher being responsible for assisting learning in a safe environment.
The technology revolution has put us in a continual
flux of revolving imbalances in the matter of students acquiring equal
access to library, computers, professor, help-sessions and many other
perquisites that tuition and fees are supposed to cover. One way to deal
with this is to wring one's hands, or blame the administration, bad economic
times, lazy students, or whatever. But the bottom line is that the professor
needs to consider how to help the learning of those who have paid for
help NOW, THIS SEMESTER!!!
Blaming someone else clearly does not fulfill the teacher's
responsibility. One does the job best by finding ways to work around the
inevitable and ubiquitous delays and inequities. That often means stretching
one's rules, making exceptions, spending extra hours, finding alternative
ways to help the student with the learning, loaning one's own materials,
and so on. The LEARNING is the bottom line!
This means a student should not be penalized for missing
a due date when situations in that distant site, for whatever reason,
interfere with what is happening on the main campus. Likewise, if a fire
alarm occurs at a distant site, one must recognize that the students are
required to evacuate their building, even if class may continue at all
other sites. The goal is to help the student learn to learn, not just
bureaucratically and arbitrarily keep a neat log book.
It is also just as important to honor the students'
special cultural, community and religious needs. If a devout Moslem comes
to class on Friday, it is to everyone's best interest to allow that student
to sit quietly in passive participation. If the presence of an American
Indian student is required at a village ceremony, the attendance requirement
can be alternatively met by having that person watch the course videotape
for that day. A teacher's flexibility, coupled with consideration for
the needs of the student is a valuable asset, since it demonstrates the
humanity of the situation as applied in the learning process.
7. Reward GROWTH; transform apparent misdirections
into beneficial experiences
If one student comes into the course at zero level
and moves forward on several abilities, and another comes into the course
at level five and also moves forward, should the reward not be given for
the growth rather than the level? If not, how can the "lesser"
student gain any incentive to keep trying? Besides, these are beginning
learners, they need to train before competing. We don't put novices on
professional sports teams. Should we not provide beginners with a safe
place to learn and practice before making them compete?
Based on my courses, using growth as the standard for
grades encourages everyone to work up to his or her capacity, and everyone
can feel confident about succeeding because there is no danger of failure
unless one coasts, strays or walks away. The syndrome of control is replaced
by that of facilitation. Even more important, the classroom opens up for
mutual assistance in ways that are not true in the competitive setting.
Helping someone else in no way diminishes your own chance of getting an
A, and is personally rewarding as well.
While the teacher who switches to growth may be uneasy
about "being too easy" and thus over-react in establishing criteria
and categories, once he or she relaxes a bit in what is usually a concern
about being criticized by one's peers, it will become apparent that the
students will be eager and able to establish growth criteria. They will
write about it, talk about it, and advance even more rapidly than they
thought possible. My intuition says this relates to liberation from worry
about failing and a consequent ability to relax and grow.
Growth has another face: venturing forth by trial and
error. If one is free to grow, one must also be free to make mistakes,
and learn from them. This does not happen if the teacher is there with
gradebook in hand -- the symbolic prop of authority will undermine the
liberty of exploration. Rather than judge when a student has made an error
or something did not work, it is far more productive to ask, "Okay,
John, what happened there? How do you explain it?" Saying that takes
the pressure off, it turns attention away from possible personal embarrassment
and toward a constructive effort to assess and learn.
The same kind of thing occurs in class discussion.
It is so easy to ask a question and say, "No, that is not correct,"
when the answer was unexpected, did not fulfill your expectation and did
not apparently support the direction you were trying to move the discussion.
Saying such a thing, however, will interrupt what you are trying to do.
It will stop the flow, shame the student, and diminish willingness to
participate among the others. You get back what you give out. If correctness
is what is demanded, exploration will cease. And is exploration not the
most important component of learning?
Instead of negating, perhaps a more useful discussion
prolonging approach is to say, "Thanks, John. That is an interesting
point. Let us examine that idea. What are its components? What does it
presume? Which of the various schools of thought might say that? And where
does that idea lead us?" The point is to keep the conversation moving,
entering various coves and bays, finding out which ones are worth staying
in and which are not. If you cannot think of anything else to say (which
happens to me, too), there is always, "Well, that certainly is one
way of looking at it!"
The goal is to help learning take place, which leads
to growth -- including that of the teacher. I cannot tell you how many
times a student has mentioned something which I had not previously thought
of in that context. Can you imagine the encouragement to exploration which
comes when I say, "That's great! I have never thought about that
before. Thanks. Let us see where that takes us." Not only will the
student who said it radiate and open up, but so will all the rest.
8. Develop after-class exercises where students
can interact, build and learn
One unfortunate tradition of our agricultural/industrial
schooling of synchronous, face-to-face class time is that one learns Humanities
382 from eleven to twelve-fifteen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, period. Superior
learning can occur in other time frames and blocks. Learning comes from
frequency as well as intensity, thereby implying what happens outside
of class is vital. Whether we call it homework, or workbook exercises,
or reading the chapter for the next class discussion and answering the
questions in advance, there is always the possibility for keeping the
learning pot on simmer in-between the actual class meetings.
With current technologies proliferating rapidly, other
options are opened. If students can be on electronic mail, they can interact
with me within the convenience of their own time schedules. With Group
Systems or other listserver and chat-group software, I can continue class
discussion after class by putting questions out for students to consider
and respond to. Moreover, they can do that by signing their names, or
we can interact anonymously, where the ideational content becomes more
important that the identification of who-said-what. Both are actually
important and necessary: the former emphasizes the evaluative style in
which we always consider ideas in the perspective of their authors, while
the latter allows us to concentrate on the concepts themselves in terms
of idea components, conceptual rationales, and schools of interpretation.
Most important is the habit of self-direction. Rather
than being dependent upon teacher and class time for the initiation of
learning, the student engages at will, based on personal needs and time
allocations. Diurnal and nocturnal types can thus come together by computer.
Group work can do the same thing when all parties have each other's electronic
mail addresses. Individual students can summarize accomplishments and
seek responses from peers. Multi-classroom projects can develop electronically,
with their participants in many different locations, while peer assessment
and evaluation can also take place. Many opportunities become possible,
especially for students who have not had access before.
Still, a hazard exists when all students do not have
access to the same facilities -- an overly legalistic approach may fear
lawsuits and not allow any students to do such things until everyone is
"equal." I personally do not think equity can be reached as
we grow and expand, and I see no evidence that we are slowing down. I
therefore do not want to wait, but rather will encourage use of all possibilities
for as many students as have them and try to find additional learning
mechanisms for those students who must function in places which are technologically
less advanced. I have seen inter-site groups work just as effectively
with FAX as with e-mail. The key here is continuity; learners need to
keep the components and concepts of learning in motion as frequently as
9. Construct grading on personal effort, persistence,
evolution and enlightenment
Traditional grading has followed two standards, Ideal
and Comparative. In the former, the student's achievement (as perceived
by a testing mechanism which, regardless of type, is recognized as incomplete
and imperfect) is measured against a yardstick of knowledge. In the latter,
the students are measured against each other. In both cases, winners and
losers emerge, and even more so when the results are set into a pre-established
curve. The presuppositions are that all cannot be good or excellent, and
there must be some prioritizing. The reality is that if a win-lose situation
is set up, there will always be losers, and no matter how hard everyone
tries, those on the lower end of the scale will lose and be labeled losers.
In our Post-Modern era of multicultural awareness and
acknowledgment of variations in learning styles, cultural perspectives
and taboos, affective and psychomotor modes, as well as acquisition-rate
metabolisms, it becomes clear that pushing everyone into the same mold,
when everyone is not the same, does disservice to the teacher, the student,
the process and the society. Besides, education is not a war where lives
are at stake and someone must win. Rather, while one purpose of education
is to assure society of pre-prepared workers and effective citizens, another
and perhaps higher level of intention is to help each person attain a
fulfillment of self and potential -- something which the world has yet
Another factor merits consideration. When the professor
tests the learner, various elements of cross purposes and vested interests
are involved. It may be that learner-helping should be the dedication
of the professor, and that testing for competence should be in the bailiwick
of the prospective employer, who will know exactly what skills and capacities
are required for the specific tasks that the prospective employee may
be hired for. As things now stand, a grade of A or B or C means nothing
to an employer since they are rankings rather than qualificational descriptors.
A shift to a measuring of growth can be salutary in
many ways. The teacher benefits because concentration can be focused totally
upon learning experiences, rather than devising methods to create a number's
spread which will translate to a ranking of grades. Since I tried unsuccessfully
for twenty years to formulate standardized tests which would eliminate
the bell curve, I finally concluded that it was the curve itself that
was the problem.
If you build your system around a pre-established curve,
you will always get it. And if you always get it, you will probably assume
that it is a Natural Law rather than an artificial one, and therefore
you will make no genuine effort to find a more constructive way. Thus
the phrase, "the grade curve has always been with us, and there is
no need to change it. It is inevitable that some students are brighter
than others and should be rewarded!" That may be thoroughly logical,
but it defines learning more in terms of accomplishment based upon the
teacher's traditional standard than upon the effort of the learner.
Growth, on the other hand, requires no curve. It is
another world, another paradigm, another set of concepts: The questions
in this perspective are, "Did the student acquire new knowledge,
skills, abilities and perceptions? Did he or she work at the tasks and
accomplish all of them? Did he or she move forward from where they previously
were? Were they opening up in their comprehensions and did they advance
a significant distance?" Those are the legitimate questions in this
It is the individual advancement rather than the comparison
between Patruska and Ahmed, Florencia and Bubba. Likewise, when a professor
of one generation establishes criteria for excellence for a younger generation
in a climate of accelerating cultural, technological and organizational
velocity, to say nothing of the speed of employment changes, serious questions
of appropriateness and ethics arise.
But we also expect some sort of scientific approach
if we use growth as a measure. Questions emerge rapidly when we are dealing
with the variables of students not starting at the same place, not being
the same in their abilities, cultures and learning styles, not able to
dedicate the same amount of time and effort, and not traveling the same
distance. From the perspective of the Idealists and the Comparativists,
these are seemingly insuperable barriers -- but those are etic rather
than emic viewpoints, that is, they look at the learner from the outside
rather than from within.
In truth, the Growth standard is utterly uncomplicated
to understand and simple beyond belief to apply. There are no formulas,
no ratios or percentages, nor additions, subtractions, multiplications,
divisions or deletions. Did growth take place? Did it occur in several
different areas? Was it considerable? Did the student work at it? Are
the consequences of the growth apparent?
One only needs to ask the student to write a reactive
response to a straight-forward question about some aspect of the course
topic on the first day of class, put it in a file, and return to asking
the same question at midterm and again at the end of the course. The answers
will have changed, and the phrasing, vocabulary, outlook, levels of response
and multiplicities of consideration will have indicated the nature of
the individual growth.
As the semester progresses, student development becomes
visible in participation, in helpfulness to others, and in various other
ways, including willingness to present and share what has been learned
without formal credit. However, this can be a teacher's mental trap, because
one cannot assume the quiet ones are not advancing simply because they
are passive. To use the Internet Listserver jargon, "Lurkers also
Learn!" The act of sitting and listening to debates and discussion
without saying anything hides what is in truth going on in their minds.
Often this will show up in reflection essays, or in written comments performed
for peer evaluation. A teacher must carefully examine assumptions about
where evidence for growth is to be found.
10. Utilize portfolios for students to accumulate
evidence of their learning growth
Another tradition in grading is that everything has
to be judged and given numbers which will be added into the total grading
pie as a percentage of the semester's accomplishment. One implication
of this, especially in the effort to be "fair" in an unfair
system, leads to a proliferation of "ways to earn points." We
have all seen syllabi where all sorts of activities can receive ten percent,
or five percent -- with the emphasis on grade rather than learning.
Moreover, if everything is graded from the very beginning,
where is there room for a "period of adjustment?" Where can
the culturally diverse or learning disabled student have a chance to acclimatize?
Even more to the point, can the person who is not already familiar with
the discipline being taught ever do as well as the one who is?
I use portfolios for all of these purposes, and I ask
each student to put many different pieces of work into it. One will be
self assessments, another will be essays, a third will be peer assessments,
a fourth will be reflection papers, and so on. There is room for lists
of questions, for partially composed sections of larger projects, for
notes and magazine articles, and many other bits and pieces, including
"work in progress."
I also use portfolios because they emphasize the work
ethic of improvement, the opportunity to go back and revise, and the chance
to build toward what is ahead. Grading each item focuses instead upon
numbers and separate elements. I want things to be holistic; I want the
student to construct what will be the accumulated result of several weeks
of work and climb up the ladders of growth and comprehension.
Most of all, I want the portfolio to always be in the
student's possession so it is easily accessible for review and alteration,
available for use in group work, and psychologically symbolic of learning
itself -- that is, an ongoing process which comes from inside, which accrues,
is formulated in stages of activity, stasis and occasional retrogression,
and is always there, just under the surface of daily thought.
I also want that portfolio in the student's hands all
the time to indicate that the most immediate source of understanding lies
within the self, especially if some fundamental learning considerations
have been learned. Finally, I want the student to take that portfolio
along after the course is over, and continue to build on it. It is amazing
how much fine post-course development can be built on a solid foundation
established during the course itself -- to modify an old aphorism, "later
books from earlier portfolios grow!" The emphasis is lifelong learning.
11. Help students investigate; ask questions to
denote and explore relationships
When I first began to teach full-time at a college,
I did it all! I read the text assignments, I wrote the lectures, I read
them to the students, I established the tests, I conducted the pretest
reviews, administered the tests, and moderated the post-test feedback
sessions -- and BOY, did I ever learn! Part of that was because I'd had
no academic training in the areas I was asked to teach in -- so I was
a learner who was barely ahead of the students rather than an expert allowed
to teach in his own field. Maybe there is a scriptural dictum here: S/he
who doeth the work, gaineth the reward."
If that is true in any way at all, the students should
be doing the work. But that does not mean the professor goes fishing.
On the contrary, the professor must work too, but in a different manner.
Much of what the professor needs to do is long in advance of the course
itself. Then, to make an analogy with teaching swimming, the professor
does not throw them into deep water and leap in to save those who are
drowning. Nor does s/he let them simply splash in the hopes they will
somehow learn the double-dolphin butterfly -- akin to the idea of the
infinite number of monkeys with plenty of typewriters and all the time
in the world; will they ever write a Shakespearian play? Or would we get,
"To be or not to be, that is the gakjsdoitslitnyu!"
The students must do the learning and yet the professor
is vital. The professor is experienced, has already done the learning,
knows what has to happen (assuming that personal ego, professional reputation
and the sophisticated ability to subdivide distinctions, which comes with
expertise, do not interfere with learner helping). The professor can write
the text, prepare the learning experiences, establish the sequences of
ascending levels of comprehension, keep the peace, assuage the frustration
with anecdotal evidence, point to alternative possibilities, provide illustrations,
and so on. Most important, these must be accomplished without occupying
the limelight too much or too long. I do not mean one must have false
humility, but attention must be focused upon the real goal, helping learning
to take place.
On the other hand, the professor must be on top of
things. A day will come when discussion breaks loose, flowing freely as
students debate with each other, none having raised their hands for recognition
from the professor. It will move fast, and then suddenly stop, as everyone
looks to see if it really was okay to do that. It has to be okay, doesn't
it, since the professor is (or should be) trying to turn the learning
over to the students. But when the students stop in stunned silence to
observe the professor's reaction, it is then that the professor steps
in, and with appropriate questions, restarts the debate.
A relationship inquiry usually works -- "Good,
and where are we on the Ladder or Hexadigm with that?" Wherever the
dialogue flows, let it go. It may not go where you want it to, but it
is going where those students are taking it at the moment. They will shift
when they are ready, and the professor's job may most productively be
to keep them thinking about the various points they need to consider as
they move along at their own pace. You will see that when, after having
interjected, "Well, what about the geographic factor?", a student
responds, "Yes, that's definitely part of it, and the elevation has
more impact than the topography!"
12. Use many return visits for idea reinforcement
rather than a single immersion
When I was both an undergraduate and graduate student
at UCLA, my professors modeled exemplary lecturer behavior. Each presentation
was superb, structurally perfect, beginning with introductions which laid
out the path and established expectations, developing in depth the many
elements which had been foreshadowed, and leading to complex and thoroughly
reasoned conclusions. Each lecture was an entity within itself -- fully
self-contained. They covered everything the first time and there was no
need to go back. I remember wanting to be like them -- and I still applaud
But those performances were informative transfers,
and I was not anywhere nearly the expert at listening to well-prepared
lectures that I am now. Now I can handle the "Once Over Thoroughly"
approach, but I couldn't then, and I do not see that students now are
any more competent at learning through lecture than forty-plus years ago
-- they are too busy taking notes to really listen and learn. It may well
be a matter of style: Single Linear Completeness (SLC) may need to be
augmented with or replaced by Non-directional Multi-filamented Recapitulation
(NMR). If we keep going back in different ways and directions, it will
probably help us to learn faster, and the lessons may stick better. But
we cannot be too obvious about it, and we really have to let them discover
Finally, I offer "The S-Curve," a mnemonic
device for learner helpers:
Set it up
Step out of
About the Author
Dr. Guy Bensusan's stories distill the essence of his
explorations and ideas about learning. He encourages us to adapt and experiment
with his ideas rather than to imitate them.
"What I offer is not a foolproof chart,
it is my personal blueprint. It comes from a professor trained in history
and experienced in teaching humanities, arts and culture courses.
I do not offer my path as one to be imitated. Only
I can be Guy Bensusan. Rather I hope that the ideas, principles and tactics
described will be considered, molded and adapted, adjusted and modified
by each navigator to his or her specific desires, locations, areas, needs
and goals. I sincerely hope they will be useful as springboards for experimentation."
About the Author
Dr. Bensusan was a prolific writer, scholar, and teacher.
He developed and taught distance learning courses at Northern Arizona
University until his passing in October 2001.