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November 20, 2008

Teaching Excellence Fair: Real-world applications

Pitt’s eighth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, held Nov. 5, included presentations from winners of 2007-08 innovation in education grants and conversations on teaching methods and techniques with faculty, as well as workshops and technology demonstrations led by Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) staff. The event was sponsored by the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence and coordinated by CIDDE.

This year, many of the sessions were recorded in webcast form. Those webcasts are posted online at

Dead sopranos, potty-trained parrots and goldfish that do the limbo are among the tools that have provided opportunities for “authentic” learning in the University’s classrooms. A group of professors shared their ways of linking course content to real-world applications in a discussion led by Pitt-Greensburg psychology professor Diane Marsh.

Marsh noted that case studies are among the best examples of authentic learning that can be put to use in many disciplines.

In her own field, behavior modification lab projects are among the many opportunities. Some of Marsh’s favorites are animal studies that demonstrate principles of behavior modification. One student housebroke his pet parrots as a project. “He brought the parrots into the class and said ‘Poop-poop, Polly” and immediately the bird went to the cage and you could hear pooping,” Marsh said. “Talk about a real-world learning experience!”

Marsh recently found a kit that uses a food wand to train goldfish to do tricks including limboing under a bar, swimming through a tube and shooting hoops with a goldfish-sized basketball. Now 66 of her students are training their own fish. All are learning. As for her goldfish, it’s near the hoop but not quite ready to score yet. The students, however, have gone on to draw the connections between what they’re doing and what’s in the text and lectures. Marsh said she wants to cheer when she overhears them saying to one another, “It’s straight out of chapter 6,” or “This is just what Dr. Marsh was talking about in class,” as they work with their fish.

Other faculty shared their own examples:

• Marla Ripoll of economics has developed ways to provide more concrete examples to her students. In her economic development class, she assigns readings, then in class has students view a 15-20 minute video clip illustrating the situation they have read about. She asks students’ opinions before they’ve seen the video and leads the discussion afterward.

• Linguistics faculty member Salome Gutierrez, who teaches Andean languages, includes lessons on culture in addition to grammar, spelling and writing in her courses.

The Nov. 1 death of Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac prompted Gutierrez to find clips of her music from YouTube to give students a timely cultural lesson on a woman who was famous for spreading Andean music across the world.

• Sandy Finke of the Department of Instruction and Learning’s vision studies program, has students learn by doing an actual assessment necessary in the early intervention process for visually impaired children.

In spite of memorizing and watching videos depicting the assessment that includes some 15 items, “they don’t get it,” Finke said. She takes her students into the home of a baby who is blind, preparing them in advance by asking them to practice the assessment on each other and even on their pets. “Then we go into the home and do the assessment with the family there and all that implies,” she said.

Students come out of the experience changed and more confident, she said.

Even though they had learned about the assessment in previous classes, “They had no idea until they were actually able to do it,” Finke said.

• Point Park University business professor Elaine Luther said launching a business plan competition for intro to business students in place of simply assigning a research paper this term is increasing their enthusiasm and reinforcing collaboration and communication skills.

She’s noticing higher attendance and engagement. “They like it a lot better than just a paper,” she said. “The prize at the end is a business incentive.”

• Pitt-Johnstown English professor David Magill has students play roles from Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” at the end of their reading. The class conducts an inquest into the main character’s death and debates whether the death was murder or accidental.

Bringing guests into the classroom is another way many professors offer their students insight into real-world applications.

Magill brings to class former English majors who are not teaching as a career to demonstrate how writing influences their jobs. Luther brings in former students who have started businesses. Gutierrez invites graduate students to share their experiences in culture and language in light of their research.

Marsh, in her abnormal psychology class, invites a guest speaker who has been diagnosed with a major mental illness to talk about what it’s like to have psychotic symptoms, tell about what was helpful and not helpful in her treatment and make suggestions to students who plan to become mental health professionals.

Marsh has students prepare questions in advance to ensure a meaningful dialogue. “They have a sense how vulnerable someone like that is … coming to a large class and airing her life in that way,” Marsh said.

In their feedback after the term, students typically state that it’s the best part of the course. “It is the best part of the course,” Marsh said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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