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  May 1, 2000

Teaching and Learning Institute Seeks
Broader Impact Through Larger Grants

Austen Clark's students are retaking their tests. It's not a punishment, but an opportunity to demonstrate how much they've learned and to improve their grades.

In fact, Clark's students can take different tests on the same material as many times as they want, an approach called "self-paced learning" or the "Keller plan." And Clark, a professor of philosophy, is implementing the system in his introductory course on "Philosophy and Logic" with a $22,000 grant from the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Clark has divided his course material into units. Each week, Clark's teaching assistants proctor eight test sessions, armed with multiple versions of tests on the different units. Each of the 240 first- and second-year students in the class can choose which unit to be tested on.

The grant pays two computer science graduate students to construct a database to help manage the many tests needed in such a course.

"Students can study until they're ready to take the test. They don't have to worry about their one chance to get a good score," says Clark. "At a stroke, it removes an awful lot of anxiety about tests and logic and formal reasoning methods."

He says the approach makes students more responsible for their own learning: "It's important to teach them they can learn on their own."

He says they've risen to the challenge. "I've found many students work ahead," he says. "One got an A in just seven weeks, after he'd completed all the tests."

Clark's grant is one of three awarded this spring by the Institute for Teaching and Learning. In previous years, the Institute has allocated up to 10 grants of $6,000 to support innovative approaches to teaching. But, says Keith Barker, director of the Institute, the grants had limited impact. Hoping to use the available funds more effectively, this year Barker decided to award fewer, larger grants.

"Giving a faculty member some money to perform some sort of function may change the individual and his or her way of teaching, but it doesn't change the culture," says Barker. "They learn, they improve, and students may benefit, but at the end of the grant, things tend to disappear."

This year's funding was designed to support year-long projects that would have a broad impact.

Clark says the test database will be useful in his course for many years, and its design could be used in other disciplines. He also sees the database as a resource that graduate students in philosophy could use for teaching elsewhere.

Another grant recipient, Oskar Harmon, is using a $26,000 grant to increase the opportunities for students to learn on-line by introducing WebCT - a website tailored to the needs of higher education - to the Stamford campus. Working with three undergraduate students, Harmon, an associate professor of economics, is helping faculty learn how to use WebCT and how to develop appropriate content for it.

His work affects 40 classes at the campus. Students in a biology class now have access to a gallery of images of seaweed and algae, for example. Others, in a history class, can read medieval texts on-line.

Harmon says WebCT is particularly valuable for students at the Stamford campus, where all are commuters and the majority also have jobs. Through the website, they can tap into on-line resources at any time, to collaborate on research presentations from off campus, take on-line quizzes, download homework assignments, or consult with a professor via e-mail. "Students like being able to study asynchronously," Harmon says, "whenever and wherever they want."

He says the technology can encourage students with different learning skills to participate. Even the most reticent students, or those for whom English is a second language, can contribute to an e-mail discussion of what they have read in class.

The third of this year's teaching grants from the Institute supports a project in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. Sandra Schreffler, an assistant professor of Spanish and applied linguistics, is developing a manual for teaching foreign languages, using the web and CD-ROMs.

Schreffler says traditional language textbooks contain too much theory and not enough examples: "People can't translate the approach to actual classroom usage." She and Norma Bouchard, an assistant professor of Italian and Italian studies, are working with six teaching assistants to construct a practical guide, with examples in the five languages most commonly taught in this country: Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese. Darlene Waller, assistant librarian, is assisting with the web and CD-ROMs.

Schreffler says the guide will help teachers engage students more actively in foreign language classes, increasing their ability to retain and apply what they learn. She is working with aspiring foreign language teachers in the Neag School of Education, and will hold workshops for high school teachers in the area.

"Students are coming to us from high schools with low skill levels because their teachers are confused," Schreffler says. "This is our way of trying to be part of the solution."

Each of the grant recipients says the project would have been impossible without sizable funding.

"If we had received only $6,000," says Schreffler, "I don't know that we would have even attempted this project."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu