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Introduction to Human Geography:
Responding to Course Evolution with Strategies for Successful Student Engagement

Helen Ruth Aspaas
Associate Professor of Geography
L.D.Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

Introduction

Introduction to Human Geography (GEOG 102) is a core course in the College of Humanities and Sciences and has been taught at VCU for decades.  The course has undergone considerable change as new faculty come and go, as student enrollment increases, and as various programs identify the course as a requirement in their particular majors.  GEOG 102 has evolved from a lecture-style course taught in an evening block of time with an enrollment of approximately thirty students to a course that is now taught with a focus on active learning to an enrollment of 100 in three fifty-minute segments of a day course.

Because of this transition, the CTE grant allowed for intense planning and organization of instruction so that even in a large enrollment course, students would learn through active engagement with the material at hand.  The expectation, of course, is that students will learn better.

Brief Overview of Project

During the summer of 2007, I wrote the GEOG 102 Instructor’s Resource Manual that now incorporates the many strategies gained from my participation in the Virginia Geographic Alliance workshops, the CTE workshops and especially in the CTE sponsored “Teaching Large Classes” year-long effort.  I drew on information gleaned from these workshops and from my own experience to create activities woven throughout each class period that keep students engaged in the learning process. 

Objectives

The following objectives were met in designing this GEOG 102 Instructor’s Resource Manual.

  1. The VCU 2020 Plan specifically identifies active/engaged learning as a reachable goal for instruction at our university.  I wanted to develop a plan that would allow instructors like myself who teach large classes to use active learning in every class period.
  2. I wanted to fine-tune the GEOG 102 Instructor’s Resource Manual so that the ideas and strategies would work well in a large class set in a lecture hall with permanent seating.  Such a setting is the most rigid form of classroom arrangement, and I wanted to show that even under such non-pliable circumstances, active learning can take place.
  3. The new undergraduate major in Early Childhood and Elementary Education (LSEEE) lists the GEOG 102 course as a requirement.  Since all VCU LSEEE majors will be taking the course, I wanted to be firm about setting a good example by my instructional techniques for the future teachers in the course.
  4. I wanted to incorporate a variety of activities so that I could speak more specifically to multiple learning styles.  Students listen; they write; they re-interpret what has been presented orally and by the written word; they view images; they draw schematics; they create mnemonics.  All of these are incorporated into the class sessions to help learners learn.
  5. Finally, student engagement or active learning is simply the Best Practice for teaching.  John Dewey’s principle that “we learn to do by doing” is the tenet I held to in constructing the resource manual.  When students are correctly engaged, they receive feedback on their performance in a continuous loop so that they can understand their mistakes, make corrections and move ahead.  Active learning promotes student responsibility in the learning process.

The course addresses geography from a thematic perspective and draws on fourteen themes relevant to human geography.  Hence, one theme is covered each week over the course of the semester.  At the end of this report I have attached two lesson guides.  The first one illustrates how I incorporate student engagement in a unit that has one class period devoted to lecturing.  The second shows how student engagement is used in a unit that focuses on intensive map work throughout the week.

Assessment Procedures

During the spring semester, 2007, students were introduced ever increasingly to active learning.  Since I had not yet constructed the GEOG 102 Instructor’s Resource Manual, some of the different efforts were “field tested” on these students.  An additional advantage of this particular course was that it was taught in fifty-minute blocks of time on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Students commented during the semester that they really liked the brief class segments which allowed for focusing on a particular topic.  The course evaluations showed some improvement compared to previous semesters, although the course has always rated an overall evaluation higher than 4.0.  It is not easy for me to say why the course evaluation went up.  I do believe that the shorter class period, the use of more active learning practices and the fact that about twenty-five percent of the class was LSEEE majors may explain the reason for the good evaluations.  The LSEEE majors are very directed and do well in their course work.  They have to maintain an above average GPA in order to accepted into the graduate teacher program.

This fall semester, I am teaching the same course using the active learning procedures.  However, the course is an Honors class, and so the enrollment is only twenty students.  Making strong assertive comparisons to the previous larger class is not appropriate even though I am using the same strategy.  No course evaluations are available at the writing of this document.

The most conclusive assessment awaits spring semester 2008 when I will be teaching the same large enrollment in the same classroom on the same schedule, using the same content.  This time the active learning will be fully implemented in all class sessions.  I have saved the end of week quiz scores from the spring 2007 class to compare with the end of week quiz scores for the spring 2008 class and am anxious to see if there is change. 

Results

I am pleased with the manual because at long last, I have carefully incorporated CTE workshop ideas formally in class plans.  Instead of haphazardly applying ideas, I have been able to carefully use suggestions for active learning in a systematic fashion so that they correspond well to the topic and to the method of presentation that I am using for each particular theme.  For example, lecture days require planned breaks in which students write summary sentences, write definitions for terms or write one or two potential quiz questions.

Informal discussions with students is a not a good systematic evaluation, but I do note that when I see students on campus who were in the spring course, they comment very positively on the class noting that they learned much in a good setting.  When I have the results from the comparison of weekly quiz scores between the spring 2007 and spring 2008 classes I will be able to identify the success of the application of engaged learning.

I want to thank the CTE for providing this grant.  Having time in the summer to reflect on active learning strategies was a luxury I don’t have during the academic year.  Also, I was able to devote large blocks of time to writing the manual so that it can be useful not only for me but as a tool to give to our adjunct faculty who may be teaching our large geography classes for the first time.  I share pedagogical ideas with a colleague in another state, and we are toying with the idea of writing a good human geography instructor’s manual.  I will share the GEOG 102 Instructor’s Resource Manual with her, and maybe we can use it as the foundation for a new project.  Thank you again for the wonderful support, both monetarily and in the way that you reach out to the teaching faculty here at VCU.

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Last modified: June 20, 2013
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