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Q&A with the Read the World Learning Assistant Team

By: Ashley Kehoe, Associate Director for Experiential Learning, DCAL

"Do you know how to read? Faces. Words. Pictures. Bodies. Games. Books. People. What are you really doing when you READ THE WORLD?"

These are questions posed in Read the World, a Comparative Literature course taught in the fall '15 term by Professor and Dean of the College, Rebecca Biron. According to the syllabus:

"This course teaches comparative methods designed to confront the (mis)understandings and (mis)translations that constitute reading across the world's languages, locations, cultures, historical periods, and expressive forms. Class work consists of hands-on exercises that engage ancient and modern myths and materials drawn from various media: text, movies, video games, anime, and digital arts."

The course was selected as one of twelve "Gateway" courses supported by the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) Digital Learning Initiative and the Educational Technologies group.

I had the opportunity to partner with Prof. Biron to take on the challenge of enhancing the overall student learning experience in the course. One learning design strategy we implemented in the course was adding a team of undergraduate learning assistants - or students who had completed the course with Prof. Biron in a previous term, expressed an authentic interest in the course content and delivery, and demonstrated an ability to facilitate engaging discussion and active learning. The fall '15 learning assistants are:

  • Abena Frempong, '17
  • John French, '17
  • Whitney Martin, '17
  • Arjun Sachdeva, '17

The learning assistant team meets weekly with Prof. Biron to review what happened in the past week and identify strategies for better engaging students. At our meeting this week, I had the chance to interview the learning assistant team, and here's what they had to say about their experience so far:

Q: Why did you decide to join the Read the World teaching team as a learning assistant?

Abena: "I think that being a learning assistant specifically for COLT a really great way to see how you're thinking, and be really introspective. Being able to lead discussions and learning how to encourage rather than shut people down has been really helpful."

Whitney: "I really wanted to encourage other people to get the same experience out of [Read the World] that I had, and if I was a learning assistant, I could try to facilitate the same sort of questioning everything, and try to help [students] to pull the same amount of worth out of it that I had."

Arjun: "I get the opportunity to take the class again, and that's really special to me, having different perspective of students in the class, what we learn in class,  what skills are being practiced, it only comes from repeatedly practicing...You really do understand it better the second time, which helps us better help the students in the class."

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of the experience as a learning assistant?

Whitney: "Being able to follow the progression of the course, know what's coming up, and being really excited about each progressive step of the course. Knowing full well that there's a path that you follow and knowing it ahead of time makes it more interesting to relate back and see the whole picture."

John: "Having listened to [students'] conversations on day one, two, three...and then hearing a much more engaged, productive conversation weeks later, I wish I could hear that more. I like tracking that kind of increasing engagement."

Arjun: "Listening in on one group on any day, hearing them struggle through at the beginning, and if they have questions then prod them on. Not that there's always a right answer, but there's always something that clicks in a group, and that's so rewarding, when they're on the right track and engaging deeply with the material, and you recognize and help facilitate that in some way."

Q: What has it been like to be involved in the design and delivery of a course as a student?

Abena: "It's not as intimidating as I thought it would be...I think just being able to sit with you and Prof. Biron and talk through ideas and all ideas are valid. More often than not, we have a good idea and we're able to implement it right away."

Arjun: "We've all taken the class and been on the other side of it. The first time she was teaching it, Prof. Biron didn't have any learning assistants, so she was speaking to 75 students, and didn't really get as much feedback. But us being able to take the class, reflect on it, and realizing that if we had done this instead of that, we would have gotten more out of the material...has been a really cool process."

John: "I feel like we have a useful perspective, having been students. Managing this at the same time as two other classes and our clubs and activities, we have an idea of both what we would want that would engage us and feel good as students, and also what we would hope to get out it."

Q: Has this experience made you look at any of your other courses differently?

Arjun: "This course is built on the foundation of discussion and that's where you get the most out of it. It makes you engage with active learning constantly, which is not something that's really at the core  of many other courses...It's changed the way I approach other classes, I want to get into small groups with students in my other classes and talk about the material, not just read a chapter and answer questions on our own."

Abena: "I'm on a Hanover FSP right now working full time as a project manager, and sometimes bridging the gap between communication has been a problem. Being a learning assistant and learning discussion questions, what's a leading question vs. what's going to shut the conversation down, has been really helpful in going back to the workplace."

Whitney: "I'm in all really small literature, Socratic classes, and  being a learning assistant has really made me appreciate that more. There's a difference between chatting and facilitating a valid discussion about a controversial topic, and being in this class again has made me appreciate that a little more."









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