Faculty Q&A: How can we build academic community in the classroom?

Faculty Q&A: How can we build academic community in the classroom?


Professors Amy Eshleman and Jean Halley co-taught student-centered classes.

In November 2013, a group of Wagner faculty and students published an article in the journal Learning Communities Research and Practice in which they described a teaching technique they had developed: student small group presentations (SSGPs). Using this method, they wrote, “We watch students step into the exciting and scholarly role of becoming knowers, members of an intellectual community engaged in the development of ideas.” We sat down with one of the authors, Amy Eshleman, professor of psychology, to find out more about how SSGPs worked.

Q How do student small group presentations work at Wagner?

A Jean Halley, my co-author and former professor of sociology at Wagner, created this technique, and I was really excited to join her in using it when we team taught together. Essentially, there were tiny learning communities within the classroom. The students would be assigned, randomly, to small groups of five to six students. These groups would remain together during the whole semester. We would assign each group a topic that they would be in charge of teaching. As a group, they would come up with an outline of the class material and discussion questions. On the day of their presentation, the group responsible for the lesson would break up, and each member would give a presentation to the other small groups. We faculty members would sit and listen to the discussions taking place. At the end of the class, we would usually bring the conversation back to the whole group.

Q What led to the creation of this teaching method?

A It was really about creating a sense of a community. We wanted to make our classes much more student-driven. For a good portion of the semester, the students are doing the teaching. It shifts the focus to make the classroom much more democratic, much more about the students taking ownership for what they are learning.

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Faculty Q&A: How Can We Build Academic Community in the Classroom? 

Q What are its benefits to the students?

A When the students read the class material on their own first, then discuss the material in class, then have an outline to take with them when they are rereading for the exam, it really helps them to see the material in more depth and understand it better.

Another benefit is the discussion questions that they came up with; we often pull from those to create essay exam questions. That gives students a lot more of a feeling of ownership, that they can influence the approach taken in class.

And then, in terms of getting to know their peers well, sometimes it can happen that students can come into a class and leave and not really get to know someone. But SSGPs create a space for students to converse with one another and build relationships with one another.

Q How good of an environment is Wagner for using such a teaching method? Why?

A Jean commented multiple times that Wagner students can be relied on to really invest the effort. You have to meet as a small group outside the classroom, you have to do really critical reading — and this was a big piece of their grade. Wagner students are up for the challenge. There is also a sense of community at Wagner, starting with learning communities their very first semester. Wagner is a place where students are ready to learn in a cooperative way, where they are helpful to each other, and they invest time outside of the classroom too.