September/October 2015 Issue • Volume 43 • Issue 6

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Impactful IDEAS

Christopher Wetzel, Stonehill College

In a moment where myriad structural challenges affect student learning at colleges and universities (Armstrong and Hamilton 2013, Arum and Roksa 2011), my students’ struggles are not unique. The 2,400 undergraduate students at Stonehill College, a small, private liberal arts college in southeastern Massachusetts, are earnest, hard-working students who often feel they lack avenues to explore their passions. Hailey Chalhoub, a 2013 Stonehill graduate with whom I regularly collaborated on research and teaching, and I decided to do something to reshape these conversations because we recognized that small institutional interventions can profoundly affect student outcomes (Chambliss and Takacs 2014).

Integrating Democratic Education at Stonehill (IDEAS), the program that we co-created, is series of interdisciplinary one-credit student-led courses, which seek to fosters engagement and active learning by creating an environment for students to share their passions, wisdom, and knowledge with one another.. Like the dynamic democratic education programs that have taken root elsewhere—from Tufts University’s “Experimental College” to UC Berkeley’s “DeCal”—IDEAS promotes innovative pedagogies and topics that are not always reflected in traditional curricula.

Initially endorsed as a two-year pilot (fall 2012-spring 2014), IDEAS received permanent approval in January 2014. During the program’s first three years, we have offered 24 classes and involved 207 students: 47 as facilitators and 160 enrolled in courses. Preparation for the IDEAS program begins late in the spring semester when would-be facilitators propose courses. The application process invites reflection, asking students to articulate a course narrative, learning objectives, and potential challenges and opportunities, as well as their personal experiences as engaged learners. During the fall semester, my student co-director and I work with the facilitators on course development. Since the program is capped at up to 10 courses, facilitators also collaboratively decide which courses will be offered. The one credit, pass/fail courses run in the spring semester with enrollments kept between four and eight students to foster engagement.

How Participating in IDEAS Impacts Students

The program illuminates the Millsian (1959) promise of the sociological imagination by linking the personal and the public in at least two important ways: Students talk about their enriched excitement for learning and in their strengthened connection with their peers.

After participating in IDEAS, students are animated about going beyond what is required and pursuing their curiosity. Some of this generative excitement is rooted in the exploration of new topics and questions. As one student wrote, these “relaxing yet still engaging [classes] do not simply teach standard subjects such as math or English or history, rather they tend to educate us about something that we often encounter everyday but take for granted or do not ever think about.” Another regarded IDEAS as a release from their major. “It is a nice break from regular classes to have your voice be heard and be exposed to disciplines you might not typically talk about in your majors.”

Undergraduate students report that IDEAS classes enhance their passion for the process of learning. “[S]timulating your brain in a different format than traditional lecture and quizzing…is so important. It helps you see the value in learning and education again,” said one student. The classes also engender a desire to do more, as another student wrote in an evaluation, “The work was so enjoyable and felt like I was learning so much … I’ve never had a class where I wanted it to be longer and meet more than once a week, I was always discovering new things.” This excitement about big ideas produced a sense of agency for many students, helping them feel they had a voice in their own educations. IDEAS “redefines your expectations of a classroom and allows you, as a student, to have a say in your own education.” IDEAS is both an invitation for students to dialogue and an urging to act on their interests.

Students involved with IDEAS frequently celebrated their connections with other students. They reflected on “sharing and gaining knowledge with peers” and “learning from your friends.” Students routinely commented on how, regardless of topic, IDEAS classes link students. “I’ve always loved IDEAS classes because they are a cooperative learning environment where everybody is a teacher and a student,” wrote one student. From the program side, we encourage these moments of seeing self in other. Facilitators are encouraged to design their syllabi with flexibility based on who enrolls in the class and what excites them. We find that students respond to this milieu of peer learning and relationships building. Students learn through new content and questions, as well as learning from new students. Facilitators seek to create spaces that highlight that each participant has something valuable to offer. “I enjoyed going to this class every single time. … We did activities and different assignments to help us understand more about the world. I think it is really great too that Stonehill students are your teachers. We all learned as a class and that was what I really loved. We were all equal in that class.”

For more information on Integrating Democratic Education at Stonehill, including annual program assessments, see www.stonehill.edu/offices-services/ideas/.

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