Samuels highlights student social identities to increase student engagement

March 3, 2011
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Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of occasional features provided by the UCCS Teaching and Learning Center to encourage faculty to share ideas about teaching strategies that engage students and enhance learning. Faculty members are encouraged to share their ideas by contacting the TLC at 255-4872 or tlc@uccs.edu. Free coffee vouchers are available to get the discussion started.

Dena Samuels portraitQ – What is your name, department and areas of research?

A – Dena R. Samuels, assistant professor, Women’s and Ethnic Studies. I research race, gender, sexuality, social identities, privilege and oppression.

Q – Why did you choose this field?

A – I chose this field because, as a sociologist, I study the connections between society and the individual, and the impact they have on each other. Social identities affect all of our lives and I am fascinated not only by the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, etc., but also how our individual behavior can affect the institutions in which we live to make them more inclusive, where everyone in the community feels like they belong.

Q – What is your teaching philosophy and how was it formed?

A – Teaching, to me, is more about what and how the students are learning as opposed to focusing on the content of what I’m teaching. Although I have information I want to share with my students, my goal is always to get them to discuss these sometimes volatile topics in order to bring their own identities and experiences into their learning process. This approach makes the most sense to me since my courses provide opportunities for self-reflection and contemplation of how we know what we know. It is also important for them to know that I am also a learner. I learn a lot from them.

Q – How do you get students engaged in the materials that you teach?

A – Class discussions, films, clips, and other media tend to get students engaged. I also ask students to journal during class to reflect on the material they are learning and to think about how it affects their lives. Most importantly, I often share my own experiences with them to illustrate a point. This, I think is important regardless of the subject matter being taught. As a co-facilitator (a lead learner, as we refer to ourselves) of UCCS’s annual national Knapsack Institute: Transforming Teaching and Learning, we tend to find that when faculty members are willing to bring their various social identities into discussions, it can serve to highlight possible differences in perspectives. This can lead to rich learning experiences for the students and the instructor, thereby increasing student engagement.

Q – What strategies do you use in the classroom to help them learn?

A – Classroom Expectations (ground rules) provide a relatively safe learning environment which makes it more likely that students feel welcome to contribute to discussions. In addition, I require that students consider diverse perspectives, especially those that are different from their own. And they learn quickly that I think comfort is overrated – they can use my classroom to challenge themselves and take risks to get the most out of their educational experience. I consider the classroom a laboratory in which students can ask difficult questions, and make mistakes for the purposes of learning and growth.

Q – Can you give one example where that strategy worked particularly well? What do your students say?

A – Mid-semester, I ask students to answer anonymously if they think they contribute to discussions more in my class than in their other classes. Students are much more likely to say they do contribute more in my class. When I ask them why, they often mention: the classroom expectations, the fact that we sit in a circle format (rather than in rows) to encourage dialogue, a non-judgmental environment, and a strong interest in the topics we cover.

Q – Where do you see the impact on their learning?

A – At the end of the course, students are asked to reflect on the course and what they learned. Frequently, they use the words “eye-opening experience.” Also, during the semester, students are required to engage in a social action project in the community and they are often pleasantly surprised not only by the realization that it wasn’t difficult to make a difference, but also, when all the projects are presented, they are inspired by the projects of their classmates. They become role models for each other, and that can have a lasting effect.

– Sharon Stevens, Teaching and Learning Center

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