Scott P. Simkins, expert in pedagogy, tells the writer that student-interactive practices can significantly increase learning in a variety of disciplines.

India and the U.S. grapple with certain similar questions about their respective higher education systems, says Scott P. Simkins, Director, Academy for Teaching and Learning, North Carolina A&T State University, U.S.

Dr. Simkins, an expert in pedagogy, participated in the recently held international meet on transnational education organised by the Kerala State Higher Education Council. During his week-long stay in Kerala, he took part in programmes organised by Mahatma Gandhi University and the Cochin University of Science and Technology.

In an interview with The Hindu-EducationPlus, Dr. Simkins elaborated on his perception of the higher education scene in India.

“There are significant variations within the system with at least one institution that I had visited employing case studies, team-based learning and other teaching practices that were similar to those practised in the U.S. A classroom I was shown (in the institution) was tiered and equipped with whiteboards, a flat-screen monitor, a video projector and other facilities in a manner similar to that seen in the U.S. On the other hand, the other institutions I visited were less advanced both in terms of physical environment and teaching methods,” he said.

“On the basis of my conversations with Indian faculty members, it appeared that the Indian higher education lagged behind the U.S. by perhaps five to 10 years. However, discussions on various issues including the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and moving away from lecture-only teaching were being witnessed in both countries. It can be very threatening for faculty members to adopt these new teaching methods, and this was true in both India and the U.S.”

A staunch advocate of employing interactive teaching methods, Dr. Simkins said such practices placed greater emphasis on what the students were actually doing in class. “These methods have been found to be effective at raising the level of learning for all students. This was the ultimate goal of teaching,” he said.

Among those new teaching techniques that were being promoted were Just-In-Time Teaching (JiTT) and Flipping-the-Classroom methods. The JiTT strategy is an intentionally structured teaching and learning method that makes use of students’ responses to Web-based questions that covered upcoming course materials. The various benefits of the method were it encouraged better preparation for course meetings and provided prompt feedback on students’ conceptual understanding. Flipping the classroom involved providing students ample opportunity for hands-on activities and meaningful learning in the class. As a result, the classroom activities moved away from the conventional theoretical framework and focused more on learning through activities.

Dr. Simkins said that one of the advantages of such practices were flexibility. “They can be adapted, and not just adopted, in a wide variety of disciplines, institution types and cultural/political/economic environments. Faculty members in each discipline, universities/colleges and state/country need to not just adopt teaching innovations that have been implemented and tested elsewhere, but rather adapt those methods for their own specific needs and constraints. For example, faculty members in India have very little flexibility with the course syllabus on an average. But within that constraint, there are opportunities for teaching the material differently so that students learn more, without sacrificing content coverage. Faculty members in the U.S. have the same concerns and raise these kinds of issues when I conduct workshops at my own university or elsewhere,” he said.

Environment

“It is not the pedagogy itself that mattered, but how the pedagogic innovation is used by taking into account the specific environment in which it is adopted. There was need for individual faculty members to take these innovations and make them their own. That was one of the messages that I stressed during the discussions held in Kerala. They should not be viewed as something brought in from the West. They must rather be considered evidence and research-based teaching innovations that have been shown to improve students learning and which could be adapted for use in India in a variety of disciplines. But they must be employed only after thoughtful and intentional discussions about how to make their best use.” Dr. Simkins said his belief and experiences, along with published research works on the new teaching techniques, suggested that adopting more student-interactive practices could significantly increase student learning in a variety of disciplines. “So, my suggestion to my Indian colleagues, just as to my American colleagues, is to adopt more of such practices to innovate more in terms of teaching practices, to measure the results in terms of impact on student learning, and to share them with their colleagues.”