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Case Studies - The Learning Environment

What is a Learning Environemt?
A learning environment is a place where learners may work together and support each other as they use a variety of tools and information resources in their pursuit of learning goals and problem-solving activities. Based on this definition, all courses are "learning environments," but not all courses are intentionally designed to achieve goals for student learning. The bricoleurs featured in the LT2 Web site are among the growing number of faculty who are designing their courses to achieve their goals for student learning. We explain this by walking through the "learning environment" model presented in the figure below.

First, consider more closely the relationships between typical problems that the featured bricoleurs experience and their goals for student learning. This relationship may be presented as follows, using the Joliet Junior College case study as an example:

Teaching Principles
Now, it is a big jump to go from a set of abstractly stated goals, like those above, to the kind of complex, on-the-ground learning activities that we saw during our case study visits and that the bricoleurs and their students described. As the Learning Environment model (above) indicates, the main steps linking faculty goals to effective learning activities, are their teaching principles. Typical of the teaching principles that guide the decisions of the faculty featured in the LT2 Web site are the following, which are drawn form the Joliet Junior College case study.

Of note, the teaching principles held by the LT2 bricoleurs are strongly consistent with the " Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" that Zelda Gamson and Arthur Chickering synthesized from research on undergraduate education.1 The teaching principles of the bricoleurs featured in this site also are consistent with the constructivist philosophy.

Synergistic Set of Learning Activities
To implement their teaching principles, the faculty featured in our case studies have chosen a set of activities that they attempt to "weave together" so that they work synergistically and achieve their goals for student learning. We have organized these activities into the following three categories:

  • Computer-dependent activities that faculty believe simply would not be possible, or at least not feasible, without computers. Examples include:
    • hands-on experiments (real-time hands-on acquisition and analysis of data, using electronic probes, that provide connections to real-world events)
    • visualization, graphical representation, and simulation
  • Computer-improved activities that faculty believe work incrementally better with technology but can still be implemented without it. Examples include:
    • the use of electronic response systems in large lectures, that enable individual students to vote on their answer to a multiple-choice question by pressing a button rather than raising a hand.
    • the use of a course website rather than/in addition to paper to post the syllabus, hand-outs, and so forth.
  • Computer-independent activities that can be done without technology. Examples include:
    • group work/guided discussion, and
    • formative assessment tasks.

Summarizing, each learning environment created by the bricoleurs featured in the LT2 case studies consists of an integrated set of learning activities, some of which are computer-dependent, and all of which implement the teaching principles that the instructors believe will achieve their goals for student learning.

Our picture of the learning environments developed by the JJC bricoleurs is completed by " outcomes ," a term that refers to four types of information that faculty use to determine how well their learning environment is achieving their goals: student testimony, instructor testimony, formative assessment, and summative assessment.

  • Student testimony, which provides key insights into how students experience different activities.
  • Instructor testimony, which conveys instructor views about how, why, and how well different activities implement their teaching principles and goals.
  • Formative assessments, which are activities that simultaneously: a) provide instructors feedback about how and what students are learning, and which the instructors immediately use to adjust and improve their teaching efforts, and b) foster student learning directly because the students learn from the process of doing these activities. (Most of the classroom assessment techniques featured in the FLAG website improve learning.
  • Summative assessments, which are formal examinations or tests, the results of which are used by faculty to demonstrate, in a way that is definitive and visible to people outside the course, the degree to which students have accomplished the learning goals for a course.

1. Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson. 1991. "Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education." In Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, ed. A. W. Chickering and Z. F. Gamson, 63-69. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 47. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

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