By Christine Denecker
According to Bryan Caplan, professor of Economics at George Mason University, four “Iron Laws of Pedagogy” can explain why teaching and learning often fall short of expectations. First, he argues, “Students learn only a small fraction of what they’re taught.” Second, “Students remember only a small fraction of what they learn.” Third, “Most of the lessons students remember lack practical applications,” and fourth, “Even when students remember something with practical applications, they still usually fail to apply what they know . . . unless you [the instructor] explicitly tell them to do so.”
Teaching and learning is not falling short of expectations in Columbia College Chicago’s First Year Seminar Honors Program—if projects such as “Maximus Waste” are the rule and not the exception.
When analyzed through a lens of Caplan’s laws, “Maximus Waste” demonstrates a “no waste” pedagogy—one where students learn and apply that learning through practical applications; in this case, through a scripted video, academic research, primary source interviews, web-building, and more. These smart pedagogical choices engage students in real-world causes, challenge them to collaborate, enhance and hone their digital literacy skills, and provide a space in which they can bond with one another and their university.
In her discussion of student motivation in learning, Linda B. Nilson argues that “we can help students put their learning toward resolving inconsistencies in their beliefs, values, and worldview. We can also make their learning more of a social than an individual enterprise” (54). In “Maximus Waste,” the student authors do just that—representing various worldviews in the various stereotypical characters, such as “The Wretched Waster” and “The Fearless Food Finder” who populate their video. Furthermore, the activity is a social enterprise in every sense of the word. It challenges students to work collaboratively on an issue of societal importance. And that collaboration does not end with just the students; they collaborate, too, with experts at The Greater Chicago Food Depository, professors, and those in the food industry—both in the private and public sectors. The “social” aspect of the project is also evident in their finished product, which marries both humor and serious issues. Simply put, it looks like the students are having fun while learning.
Beyond that, the “no-waste” pedagogy of this assignment includes a stretching of students’ technological skills. Cheryl Ball explains that “Students need practice in producing arguments, or writing, designing or composing arguments” with technology (Mahon 118); Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia Selfe assert the same claim, positing that “students [can] become so engaged in their [multimodal] compositions that they push themselves beyond the boundaries of the assignments and demonstrate learning that goes well beyond teachers’ expectations” (4). In the case of “Maximus Waste,” the combination of video work (with the requisite script writing, costuming, and directing), web design, extended footage interviews, and opportunity for interactive posting (in the form of “Food Waste Confessions”), suggests both engagement and boundary-pushing on the part of students. Granted, the student authors are honors students and more might be expected of them than of the typical college freshmen. Still, the pedagogical design of the assignment affords students the opportunity to take their technological sophistication to new levels and to compose a unique piece that—to borrow from Takayoshi and Selfe—demonstrates a utilization of “all available means” for persuasion.
Finally, research indicates that when first-year students encounter a curriculum designed to engage them in academic as well as social ways, those students are more likely to persist and remain at the institution in which that curriculum was delivered (Crosling, Heagney, and Thomas 12). While retention may not have been a pedagogical goal of the instructor who designed this assignment, the elements the assignment contains exemplify a strong intertwining of the social and the academic. Take for example, “Maxiumus Waste’s” practical tips about consumption and waste. These include links to USDA studies, laws and acts pertaining to food donation and regulations, statistics on college students and food waste, a discussion of dumpster diving and freeganism, and additional facts and tips. An explanation of the research process—reflective and metacognitive in its design—rounds out the academic challenge of the assignment and is supported by an annotated bibliography and list of sources. Obviously, then, a robust academic element complements the social and technological aspects of the assignment design.
As Nilson points out, today’s students are “self-confident,” “technologically sophisticated, action bent, goal oriented, service or civic minded, and accustomed to functioning as part of a team” (11). The pedagogy undergirding “Maximus Waste” speaks to all these strengths and more. This no-waste approach to assignment design proves that the Ironclad Laws of Pedagogy need not lead to learning that falls short of expectations. Instead, an assignment designed with social and academic applications in mind can lead to a pretty amazing learning experience—for students and for the audience of their work.
Caplan, Bryan. “The Iron Laws of Pedagogy.” Library of Economics and Liberty. Liberty Fund, Inc. 2013. Web. 25 September 2014.
Crosling, Glenda, Margaret Heagney, and Liz Thomas. “Improving Student Retention in Higher Education: Improving Teaching and Learning.” Australian Universities’ Review 51.2 (2009): 9-18. Print.
Mahon, Wade. “Multimodal Composition and the Rhetoric of Teaching: A Conversation with Cheryl Ball.” Issues in Writing 18.2 (2010): 111-131. Print.
Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2010. Print.
Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L. Selfe. “Thinking about Multimodality” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Ed. Cynthia L. Selfe. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc. 2007. 1-13. Print.