Immersive Learning: What it looks like and why it matters, Part 1

Immersive Learning: What it looks like and why it matters, Part 1


October 13, 2015

Like many of our peers around the country, the University of Arizona has invested heavily in student engagement over the past several years. These efforts include a focus on student retention and academic support and on giving students the opportunity to apply knowledge from formal education in other settings through the UA’s 100% Engagement initiative. I have more than once argued that the research university is a unique place for this kind of engagement because of the collegiality that characterizes the academy and because students learn with scientists and scholars who are working at the forefront of human knowledge. But why, in fundamental terms, do these qualities matter? To really start answering why research and teaching elevate each other we need to understand how students learn, what that learning does for them outside the classroom, and what impact a university education has in their lives beyond finding their first job after graduation.

"Contour gauge w pot" by Tenbergen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

"Contour gauge w pot" by Tenbergen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.


Complexity and the Spines of Leaders

One way to understand the issue is to recognize that knowledge about a thing or a process is not something that can be simply acquired and then stored apart from other pieces of knowledge. The complexity of how we use knowledge and ideas defies that kind of isolation. Thus, a student’s education must reflect the complexity of the world they will have to engage upon graduation. The process of learning itself is equally complex because students come to their university education with an enormous variety of backgrounds, life experiences, states of mind, motivations, and many other variables, all of which influence their learning experience.

A metaphor that I have borrowed from Karl Weick in my scholarship on leadership and principal succession in K-12 schools is useful here. Weick discusses the contour gauge, a tool that carpenters and other skilled workers use to recreate two-dimensional patterns from one physical object to another. As in the image of the gauge and the pot, a set of rods—or spines—are attached independently to a common frame. That frame provides stability, while the independent movement of each spine allows the entire tool to accurately mold the shape to be reproduced. The point Weick makes about leaders has to do with the number of spines in the tool. The more spines that there are, the more the complexity of the original shape can be accurately reflected; with leaders the more spines they have to deal with the complexity of an organization, a situation, or a set of relationships, the better they can adapt to its unique challenges and opportunities.

The same is true for students. Our role as educators is to help them generate new spines (new knowledge, new experiences, new ways of thinking) and to help them learn how to use those spines independently but in concert with one another. By doing so, students and graduates are able to learn from new experiences because they have a strong foundation for the cognitive process of learning, which is the best way to prepare them to address the unpredictable challenges of their lives and work.

There are two areas where universities and colleges can do this most effectively, each with different but related reasons for why immersive learning in a research-intensive context is particularly effective: interactive curricula and engagement experiences in new settings.

Interactive Curricula – The Importance of Immersive Learning Experiences in the Classroom

This need to give students the tools to deal with the complexity of our world and help them learn to use those tools is a major reason why many schools and instructors have begun to shift their approach in teaching from a lecture-based model to one that is more interactive and that depends more on students’ involvement. The significant difference is that students go from being vessels filled with facts and other knowledge to active participants who use the knowledge that we help them to uncover, internalizing it much more efficiently and effectively for later use. Antecedents to this approach have been around for some time. For instance, in the early twentieth century Maria Montessori created a system of preschool education (that has now grown to include primary and some secondary schools) centered on students working independently on tasks and projects based on model activities that had been presented to them ahead of time.

This kind of approach has been in use in different parts of the university curriculum for some time. First-year writing and composition classrooms, for instance, have long focused on interactive learning because of their role in providing a framework for student learning as they move into specialized majors. These foundational classes do not just teach students the proper way to put a sentence together, though they do focus on the general expectations for academic writing. They also focus on helping students build skills and different processes for dealing with a variety of writing tasks and situations from classroom to lab to office and beyond. This approach is important because students (especially at public universities) come from many different backgrounds, with many different types of literacy, different attitudes towards writing, and different experiences as learners, so that introduction to academic writing can engage psychological and emotional processes as much as technical knowhow.

The workshop approach that predominates in composition classes reflects this complexity as the instructor’s role is a facilitator who establishes a learning community for students to practice writing and exchange work. As this occurs, the instructor focuses on providing feedback and showing students how to use it effectively. This approach teaches students to learn how to write in different situations and settings so that they can apply the basic forms and processes they learn in first year composition as they take on writing tasks in other courses as they specialize in a major.

Recent work in the interdisciplinary field of distributed cognition helps to corroborate this approach to teaching. Emerging from the intersection of various disciplines including philosophy, computer science, and cognitive science, distributed cognition studies has made important contributions to the idea of situated learning.  At the heart of this concept is the insight that learning is more effective when it comes from social interaction between student peers led by a teacher rather through an instructor depositing knowledge into the minds of passive students (Gomez and Lee, Interactive Learning Environments, “Situated cognition and learning environments: implications for teachers on- and offline in the new digital media age,” 2015). The challenge is learning how best to apply this insight in classrooms and labs, and in formalized experiential learning opportunities.

Research on Teaching: Encouraging Immersive Learning at the UA

The importance of applying active learning models throughout college and university curricula has become increasingly apparent. Discussions in scholarly journals and now trade publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have wrestled with how to focus less on lecture and more on interaction. The conversation often includes efforts to define the difference between traditional models of college instruction and more interactive approaches in terms of daily practice. It also has dealt with how to implement those differences and the challenges in making a shift from one model to another.  

Many recent efforts have focused on shifts in curricula in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, a few years ago the Association of American Universities initiated a grant program to enable the study of evidence-based teaching methods in foundational STEM courses. The UA was one of eight universities chosen to participate in the program, and an effort was started to support the redesign of curricula, track changes in teaching practices and outcomes, and share the conclusions from this work with colleagues at the UA. As part of the program, a team comprised of faculty, department and administrative leaders, a postdoctoral researcher, and members of the UA Office of Instruction and Assessment is working with faculty in several departments to support their efforts to reform curricula by incorporating more active learning approaches.

The importance of faculty leadership is paramount in this kind of effort. Thus, one key way that the UA project team is working with faculty is to document the differences in student outcomes with different approaches so that discussion and decision-making within departments can be based on clear evidence. Their study is tracking the percentage of class time spent on different activities, how these activities are developed and shared in the Colleges of Science and Engineering and other colleges on campus through faculty learning communities, and then comparing these changes to assessment outcomes in introductory chemistry and physics courses. The University has created several new collaborative learning spaces that facilitate student interaction, an important step in creating physical infrastructure that will support these new teaching goals and learning outcomes for students.

The importance of faculty leadership in curriculum design is also due to the role of subject matter expertise and a teaching and research background skill set that are vital to creating productive and engaging learning experiences. These experiences are the richest when faculty who understand the problems at stake in a given area of study can guide students, acting as facilitators while the students gain new ‘spines,’ (or new concepts and new tools) that help them understand and address the complexity of our world. Despite research and teaching often being viewed as two opposing sides of the university, they are intimately connected in a complex network of knowledge production that brings every member of the academic community—students, teachers, philosophers, engineers—into a shared realm of inquiry and investigation. The redesigned curricula and active learning methods that I have described here are one vital component in creating that community. Equally important is providing students a structured learning experience outside the normal coursework, laboratory, or field work. These engagement experiences require students to apply what they have learned as they make decisions and take action outside a formal environment. Developing this complex cognitive skill builds on the situated learning that can be found in the interactive classroom, but it also goes beyond it in ways that are critical to students’ success after graduation. In Part 2 of this post, I will explore the relationship between active learning and engagement, why engagement matters for the mission of a research university and the kind of impact it promises for our communities. I will share those thoughts in the next several months, along with other posts on the importance of alumni engagement and research evaluation. Until then, thank you for reading.