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From wheat field to innovator: how BYU-Idaho is changing the landscape of higher education

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 11:58 p.m. MDT

Just three months after finalizing the year-round schedule with faculty, Clark began rolling out the next project — changing BYU-Idaho's approach to instruction. He wanted to do so through what would prove to be a somewhat controversial proposal — giving students more ownership of their own education.

It wasn't an entirely novel idea. Clark had seen this learning model in action at other schools, principally at the Harvard Business School (HBS), where he had served as dean for over a decade. At HBS, many professors taught through the case method, which required students to prepare for the class discussion through by preparing a case study that could take hours to study and analyze. In the case method, students were asked to study a certain company or trend in business, such as how I-Tunes changed the music industry, or the ways in which the Internet had impacted the newspaper business. Before class, students were given study materials, which could include financial reports, or organizational charts of companies they would discuss in class.

Once class started, it wasn't really a lecture — instead professors called on students to open the discussion and then acted as a facilitator to help guide the students through a discussion. In this way, the students were teaching each other, but with a faculty facilitator.

Clark wanted to use similar principles of student engagement and participant-centered learning at BYU-Idaho. There was a growing literature that confirmed improved student learning outcomes when students were more engaged and had opportunities to teach what they were learning to others. For example, a prominent, cross-discipline study released by North Carolina State University found that students who participated in this type of learning environment were more likely to graduate, earn higher grades and develop higher critical thinking skills than those who did not. They also reported more fulfilling interactions with students in class, and a richer relationship with their professors.

While other universities had implemented a shared learning model in certain departments or graduate schools, Clark wasn't aware of a school that had tried to use it in every class across and entire university, from 100 level to 400 level courses, from English to biology.

Clark wanted input from the staff, so he assembled a team from people across campus, including faculty members who taught Spanish, teacher education, business, religion and nursing.

With the team in place to create the shared principles behind a common learning approach for the university, they invited fellow faculty members to come up with ideas on what the model should look like — 400 ideas and 18 months later, the committee decided on three overarching ideas: students should prepare before coming to class, teach one another what they were learning, and ponder and prove that learning subsequent to structured learning activities.

"We wanted to create a climate for learning," said Fenton Broadhead, the academic vice president who helped develop the model. "In most places, academia is about faculty being a star and imparting all the knowledge. But the faculty should be the facilitators of learning and not the stars. It has to be about helping students learn how to learn."

At first some of the professors weren't sure how to implement the plan. Some worried that administrators wanted them to have students teach each other the whole time during class, others thought the new method of teaching only allowed for studying and discussing different scenarios in class and ruled out any lecture.

Sid Palmer, biology department chair at the school, was one of these professors who was leery of the model at first.

Palmer had grown up in academia — having spent 13 years of his life getting his undergraduate, master's and doctorate. He was a product of the traditional lecture style method. His favorite professors had taught this way. It was all he had known.

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