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The Benefits of Collaborative Learning

May 12, 2016

Tom Wolfe, associate professor of history and global studies, taught a European Studies course last spring with a unique approach. The course was structured like a think tank with four areas of focus: regional separatism; the trials of the single currency; immigration and identity, and the development and security of Europe’s “neighborhood.” Students chose a theme and then worked to become an expert in that theme. Through writing and discussion students were able to develop a sense of both the historical background of their issue and the complicated decisions policy makers were facing in the short term. Each group contributed their findings to a collectively written “white paper” that included maps, tables, literature reviews, and policy analysis.

The groups also developed oral presentations that brought their research findings and recommendations to light. The first presentations took place at IGS’s undergraduate research conference, and then near the end of the semester a member of class used her connections to the Alliance Française to arrange for a 90 minute panel presentation to a broader public audience. Wolfe said both presentations were very well-received.

Wolfe stressed from the beginning that students needed to think of themselves differently if they wanted to get the most from the class. “I told them that they needed to think of themselves as research associates, and that I was just the senior associate,” Wolfe says. “I wanted to treat them like colleagues, not students; and I wanted them to view each other in a similar way.”  Wolfe attributes much of the success of the course to this redefinition of what a class is. “I didn’t think the traditional style of teaching, with long lectures and weekly assignments, was appropriate for grappling with the immediately unfolding present. I wanted to treat everyone like adults committed to understanding a complicated set of processes in the present. This required above all, fostering an environment of respect and collaboration.”

“My group focused on questions relating to the future of the European Union, including the economic crisis and issues of citizen knowledge and involvement in the EU,” says student/research associate Allison Dohnalek. “We worked together like colleagues, offering feedback and new ideas for each other’s research each class. In the end, we all benefited immensely from this format, as we not only produced high quality individual research, but we also deepened our knowledge about every facet of the theme by discussing each of our colleague’s work.  

“I, too, learned a lot from the course,” Wolfe says. “And I hope to continue this style of teaching.” Dohnalek agrees, “It was one of my favorite classes I’ve taken at the U. I hope to work in a field of international law or public policy, so the experience of researching and analyzing issues in a non-didactic think-tank style was enriching and lent a sense of real-world experience. Plus, it was incredibly rewarding to be able to share our research outside of the classroom.”