HARTFORD, CT, November 16, 2012 – In the second of two Common Hour panels dealing with the topic, “cultivating the curious student,” four professors offered a look at their strategies and techniques for bringing out the best in their students, whether it’s simply selecting material that’s difficult or forcing the students to turn the mundane into something that captures their imagination.
The participants were Christopher van Ginhoven Rey, assistant professor of language and culture studies; Stefanie Chambers, associate professor of political science; Kent Dunlap, professor of biology; and Susan Masino, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience.
The subject has become the source of much debate on campus in recent months as the campus has become embroiled in a larger conversation about how Trinity needs to attract and retain students who are academically motivated. In the first panel discussion two weeks ago, the six students emphasized that one of the keys is having faculty members who are engaged and go out of their way to serve as mentors, role models, advisers and great communicators.
The four faculty members who were asked by the Center for Teaching and Learning, the sponsor of the event, to participate Thursday are considered exemplars.
Van Ginhoven Rey led off the discussion by saying that he makes an effort to choose material that is not necessarily easy for the students to digest and master. “I don’t shy away from something because it’s too hard,” he said.
He also said that he puts great importance in developing a curriculum that forces students to familiarize themselves with the material and be prepared to ask questions. Often, he said, that means “slowing down and covering less than I want to.”
Chambers said she finds that curiosity can be fostered in students by getting them to focus on individualized research. Using that technique require students to “shape their own future,” which can then turn into a lifelong focus. Often that involves students getting involved in classes with a community component, such as the Community Learning Initiative.
Another strategy that Chambers uses is to have her students read a national newspaper on a regular basis. “It’s a daily habit that can spark curiosity,” she said, by forcing students to understand how people and events “relate to the real world and to real-world Hartford.” At other times, it results in students designing individualized studies related to the events they have read about.
Chambers noted that it’s sometimes obvious who the curious students are because they make themselves known. The more difficult problem, she said, is identifying the “curious but quiet student.” How to accomplish that is an ongoing problem.
Dunlap said that one of the ways to motivate students is to persuade them that just about anything can be interesting, even if at first, it appears to be quite mundane.
“Curiosity is, in part born out of imagination,” he told the Common Hour audience. “The world is quite interesting,” he said. One of the jobs of a faculty member is to persuade students “what they are is interesting and where they are is interesting. We need to get them to tap into some elemental source of curiosity.”
Masino said a goal of hers is to “get students to extend themselves…and get out of the classroom whenever possible.” For example, she often offers students extra credit if they participate in extracurricular events. Another device, she said, is to give students choices that are open-ended, forcing them to think and investigate.
There was agreement that one of the challenges facing faculty today is to reignite the curiosity in students, especially when they’ve arrived on campus from schools where teachers are encouraged “to teach to the test” and not allow students to think “out of the box.” The consensus was that was a challenge that Trinity faculty would have to overcome.
Chambers also noted that it’s difficult to motivate students to be curious and delve into a variety of courses when they have to face parents who prod them to get degrees in practical fields that will lead to good-paying jobs. “The question, ‘what am I going to do with my degree?’ doesn’t lend itself to using your imagination,” she said.
Dunlap offered one perspective, saying entrepreneurs by definition need to be curious.