Better Students, Better Teachers: Center for Learning & Teaching Expands Offerings

The Center for Learning and Teaching at Bowdoin helps students improve their study habits and writing and quantitative skills, and advises faculty on teaching. The Center’s staff, left to right: Lisa Flanagan, Eric Gaze, Tammis Donovan, James Broda, Kathryn Byrnes, Kathleen O’Connor, and Meredith McCarroll.

A handful of students on a recent Friday afternoon had gathered in the upstairs room of Russwurm House to discuss ways to tackle that most trying of tasks — beginning a writing assignment.

After acknowledging the challenge of simply starting to put words down, Kathleen O’Connor, director of Bowdoin’s Writing Project, described a few tips students might do to jumpstart the process. She discussed “free writing” to get ideas flowing, and writing down thoughts as if composing a letter to a friend. This technique, she explained, helps you to use more natural, communicative language.

Director of Writing and Rhetoric Meredith McCarroll, who was also at the workshop, said she can’t bear to look at a blank page for too long. So she begins to write for herself “as informally as it can be.” She added that by the time she reaches the end of a page, “some idea has emerged,” and she’s “gotten over the intimidation of writing.” The discussion then moved on to strategies for composing introductions and thesis statements.

“It takes courage to embrace new challenges, rid ourselves of pre-conceived notions, and learn how to learn, but this is what makes life meaningful.” — Eric Gaze, chair of the Center for Leaning and Teaching

This writing session was one of the Center for Learning and Teaching’s Wicked Smart Fridays, a new student program offered on Fridays between 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. The sessions address strategies that can improve students’ writing skills, study habits, or quantitative reasoning. This semester, there are nine Wicked Smart Friday sessions led by the center’s staff, including Making Sense of Difficult Texts, Asking Questions to Deepen Learning, and Study Habits in STEM. O’Connor’s session was called Writing Papers in College: Beginning.

Wicked Smart Fridays reflects the CLT’s efforts to make its resources more convenient and easy to use. The sessions take place in the center of campus, at Russwurm House, so students can pop in after lunch or with their lunches. Bringing the Center for Learning and Teaching’s programs closer to the heart of campus, as well as continuing to offer them in its space in Kanbar Hall, is a way to reach students who might not otherwise visit the center, explained Kathryn Byrnes, director of the Baldwin Program (which is part of the Center for Leaning and Teaching).

She also noted that some students are more comfortable attending group sessions rather than scheduling a one-on-one meeting. “Talking about challenges with learning and effective strategies can sometimes be more effective in a group of peers,” Byrnes said. “We hope to encourage students to ask for help or assistance and to feel like, ‘this service is here, why wouldn’t I use it?’”

Students working in Bowdoin’s Center for Learning and Teaching

The mission of the Center for Learning and Teaching, which offers a range of programs and support, is to enhance student’s academic achievement and to help faculty grow as teachers. Eric Gaze, chair of the Center for Leaning and Teaching and director of its Quantitative Reasoning Program, said the most fulfilling part of his job is supporting students and faculty. “It takes courage to embrace new challenges, rid ourselves of pre-conceived notions, and learn how to learn, but this is what makes life meaningful,” he said. “There is power in change, and we at the CLT assist with developing the intellectual tools and learning strategies that allow students and faculty to take risks and grow together as a community.”

In addition to its professional staff, the CLT also has many student employees: approximately 75 quantitative reasoning tutors, 20 writing assistants, 10 Baldwin mentors, and 10 receptionists who help other students with skills such as time management, innovative learning strategies, and reading, writing, quantitative, and study habits.

Another new CLT program that McCarroll is leading this year is geared toward improving students’ public speaking skills. McCarroll and a trained cohort of students are working closely with the first-year seminar, Bad Girls of the 1950s, taught by Jen Scanlon, who is Bowdoin’s William R. Kenan Professor of the Humanities in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. “Students in her class will work with the rhetoric assistants to practice their oral presentation, will receive feedback, and will work toward revision of the presentation before they share their work with the class as a whole,” McCarroll said.

On top of its new student programs, the Center for Teaching and Learning is expanding its offerings for faculty and staff. This semester Byrnes is leading a new Thursday teaching group where professors can gather for lunch to talk about pedagogical strategies, such as the best way to form groups for classroom discussions or how to let students know it is okay to be less than perfect. “It’s a place to get ideas about teaching from one another,” Byrnes said.

In addition, Byrnes is offering professional development sessions for faculty throughout the semester that address specific topics, including designing effective assessments for learning and accommodating different learning needs. The staff in the Center for Leaning and Teaching also lead book groups for faculty, make classroom visits, give in-class mini lessons, and provide consultations on syllabi, instructional design, and assignments.

The message the Center for Learning and Teaching is trying to put out there is that it is a resource for everyone, according to Byrnes. “Everyone is challenged as a learner and educator and everyone can improve as a learner/educator,” she said. “It is not a sign of weakness or failure, and of course we can all get better and more effective at learning and teaching.”

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