Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning Conference

Towards the end of February, I presented at the “Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning” conference, which is part of the annual Lilly Conferences on Evidence Based Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed. This conference serves as a platform for the presentation of the scholarship of teaching and learning. Educators from many universities and colleges get together to discuss new approaches in the teaching and learning of their disciplines. It is always a rich and stimulating ground to keep developing professionally.

My presentation was titled “Teaching 21st Century Competences: Authentic Assessment Pedagogy: Tools and Guidelines”. It had three sections.

In the first one I proposed questions for active listening. We identified a major challenge we are facing, that of students not being highly engaged in learning, often because they do not see the content or the way they are assessed, as relevant for their life today. Then we defined and contrasted 20th century competencies vs. 21st century ones, and we reflected together on how to prepare our students for a world in flux.

In the second section, I presented authentic assessment pedagogy and showed how it can help us meet the challenge of preparing our students for what they need to succeed as workers, creators and citizens in the 21st century.

In the third section—to make the concepts more concrete—I presented a case study, based on my own application of authentic pedagogy in my course “Volunteering, Global Education and Good Writing”, and invited participants to think of applications in one of their courses. For example, by identifying a learning outcome that students are having trouble reaching and by asking themselves how to make it more relevant to their students’ lives, as well as asking what authentic tasks could prepare students to achieve that outcome.

I distributed a double-sided page in which participants explored, first on their own and then in pairs, how to specifically apply in their courses the Authentic Assessment tools and guidelines I was presenting. The purpose of the session was to assist participants with designing effective syllabi for this pedagogy and scaffolding authentic tasks to assist students in discovering new knowledge and developing the skills they need to succeed today.

I also distributed a two-page handout with the main points of my PowerPoint presentation and a recent bibliography where participants could learn more about this pedagogical approach. There were about 30 participants in the presentation. They were all highly engaged and many of them took time after we finished to share with me how useful these ideas were for them.

To give you a brief taste of what we discussed here are some highlights of the talk:

“Authentic Assessment Pedagogy” is a methodology that fosters the development of such 21st century competencies as communication, collaboration, problem solving, innovation, intercultural awareness and self-assessment skills. It asks students to perform real world tasks that demonstrate deep understanding and meaningful application of critical knowledge and skills. The tasks serve not only as direct measure of assessment but also as vehicles of such learning.

As it has been pointed out by current reformers in education, such as Cathy Davidson and Grant Wiggins—authors of “The New Education” and of “Understanding by Design” and “Essential Questions”—the point of assessment in education is to advance learning, not to merely audit absorption of facts. We need to think of assessment as information for improving. The authentic assessment pedagogy tasks are faithful to real-world demands, opportunities, and constraints. The students are tested on their ability to transfer their learning effectively to real life situations beyond the classroom.

In the course “Volunteering, Global Education and Good Writing”, which I referred to as a case study, my students hone their mastery of the Spanish language and their understanding of the Spanish speaking cultures studied in our discipline, by working one on one with native speakers from the Latino Community in the Bay Area while volunteering at Oakland International High School and East Bay Sanctuary: two NGOs that assist refugees, under-documented students, and immigrants on their path to citizenship.

In that course, each student also writes to a Latin American NGO they have selected, and invite them to be interviewed by her/him and by the rest of her/his classmates and I in the classroom in Spanish, via Skype, phone or whatever would work best for the interviewees. After researching the NGO, the student prepares a multimedia webpage about it and presents it to representatives of the BLC, the Education Abroad program, the Global Poverty and Practice minor, etc. Students also practice good writing by writing academic blogs about various stages of their process of learning, reflecting on what could they improve in each of them. And, finally, they write a letter of application to an NGO of their choice applying for a position to volunteer/work there.

With this Authentic Assessment methodology, my students are able to transfer skills and knowledge they have learned in the classroom to real life situations that prepare them to develop competencies of communication, innovation, intercultural awareness, and self-assessment skills. Students sense this form of work as relevant to their lives, and engage deeply with these opportunities of learning.

We are very fortunate that we live in an age where communication technology facilitates such a relatively easy access to many language and cultural communities locally and abroad, which makes possible many different applications of the model of authentic assessment pedagogy across disciplines, languages and cultures.

My presentation was based on research I began with a BLC Fellowship in 2008 on “Learning to Learn” and which I continued (and I am currently doing) with two Lecturer Teaching Fellows Grants from the Center of Teaching and Learning at UCB. One of them on Understanding by Design Pedagogy and the other on Authentic Assessment Pedagogy.

Thanks to this BLC Travel Grant I was able to share what we are doing in UCB, and enter in rich dialogue with colleagues from other universities about how to keep honing our teaching and learning skills.