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Case #1: Mike Bertal
Mike Bertal always rolled up his sleeves when he entered his design classroom. A highly motivated and physically active professor in his late thirties, Mike still remembered what it was like to be a college student. He was committed to improving the educational experience of the next generation of engineers.
This semester, Mike was teaching an introductory engineering design course at his university - a large, public institution in the United States. Mike enjoyed involving his students in lively experiential activities, such as discussions of real-world applications and ethical and environmental issues. His teaching was founded on principles of collaborative learning. In recognition of his high satisfaction ratings from students, Mike recently won a university award for excellence in teaching.
One student in his class, who had recently come to the United States for undergraduate studies, seemed particularly reserved, perhaps even uncomfortable. The student did not participate in group discussions. His projects, although they were proficient, accurate and detailed, did not offer evidence of original thinking or creativity. Mike was concerned about the issue, but had not yet talked with the student.
Halfway into the semester, Mike gave his students an assignment which did not involve group work. This project required that his students develop a simple and practical solution to an engineering problem. This assignment would count for 25% of the students' grades in the class. Many of the students were excited about their task and began generating ideas immediately. They continued to gesture and describe their projects as they walked out into the hallway.
The international student approached Mike cautiously as Mike was gathering up his books. Addressing Mike formally, the student said, "Professor Bertal, I do not understand this project."
Before you read the sample analysis for this case, you may want to consider the following questions.
1. What issues does this case study raise?
2. What questions for group discussion come to mind as you read the case?
3. What could the instructor do in this situation? Generate several possible responses
4. What might be the consequences of these responses?
An Example Case Analysis
Some Issues Raised By the Case:
Mike Bertal believes that collaborative learning is "good for everyone." Indeed, many studies show that United States students are more responsive to collaborative learning than to traditional lecturing styles. However, a student who comes from an academic culture in which structures of authority are more fixed may feel at a loss in a relaxed class environment. Although this student may be quite talented, he is not used to the expectations that Mike Bertal holds for his students. These expectations may not have been clearly articulated at the beginning of the course. It is also possible that the assignment is not clearly described, and that this student is particularly perceptive.
Possible Discussion Questions:
- What assumptions is Mike Bertal making about his students' backgrounds, learning styles, and/or interests?
- Is Mike Bertal's extensive use of collaborative learning just as one-sided as teaching styles that focus extensively on individualized learning?
- Why did Mike Bertal wait so long to talk to the student and try to determine the origin of the problem?
- Is the central problem a learning style issue, a cultural issue, or something else?
A Possible Set of Responses and Their Consequences:
1. Response : Address the problem as early in the semester as possible by talking to students who do not participate in class.
Consequences : Both the instructor and the student might develop a better understanding of one another's perspectives. This understanding could lead to the use of both collaborative and individualized learning activities in the course. On the other hand, the student may withdraw even further. If this occurs, the instructor may wish to draw on other campus resources.
2. Response : Discuss the concept of collaborative learning with the student and explain that, in Western culture, it is a common method of teaching/learning.
Consequences : The student could have ambitions to remain in the United States after graduating and might realize that it is in his best interest to learn how to function effectively in collaborative teaching/learning environments. However, the student may continue to be quiet. Since the assignments reflect understanding of the material, the instructor should not penalize the student.
3. Response : Explain the assignment and clarify its connection to readings, lecture, and class discussion.
Consequences : Perhaps the assignment is unclear or assumes knowledge specific to the United States. Other students may have "filled-in" the blanks, while the international student does not have the cultural tools to do so. Next semester, Mike Bertal could rewrite the assignment to be more culturally neutral.
4. Response : Understand that one teaching style does not work for all students. Incorporate a variety of different assignment types to meet a variety of learning needs.
Consequences : The student's performance will probably improve if the assignment accommodates his learning style. It is possible that other students, who prefer collaborative learning, may resent any changes that were made to the course.
Reaching All Students: A Resource Book for Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
- Active Learning
- Cultural Differences for International Instructors
- More Strategies for Effective Lecturing
Diversity Institute Literature Review
- Cabrera, A.F., Colbeck, C.L. & Terenzini, P.T. (2001). Developing performance indicators for assessing classroom teaching practices and student learning: The case of engineering. Research in Higher Education, 42(3), 327-352.
- Cabrera, A.F., Crissman, J.L., Bernal, E.M., Nora, A.P.T. & Pascarella, E.T. (2002). Collaborative learning: Its impact on college students' development and diversity. Journal of College Student Development, 43(2), 20-34.
- Cabrera, A.F. & La Nasa, S.M. (2002). Classroom teaching practices: Ten lessons learned. Retrieved June 17, 2010, from http://www.education.umd.edu/EDPA/faculty/cabrera/Classroom%20Teaching.PDF
- Rosser, S.V. (1998). Group work in science, engineering, and mathematics: Consequences of ignoring gender and race. College Teaching, 46(3), 82-88.
- Kvam, P.H. (2000). The effect of active learning methods on student retention in engineering statistics. The American Statistician, 54(2), .