Educators explore unconventional ways of boosting learning, teaching

Improv, game shows inspire lessons at PTSP Conference

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Can a professor boost classroom connections and foster better learning and teaching by getting students to loosen up with some improv theater exercises? Will matching wits at a computer-based re-creation of the game show "Jeopardy!" lead to stronger test scores? Which is better for an educator looking to engage students: new-fangled Twitter or old-fashioned telephone?

About 114 faculty members from all University of Colorado campuses gathered to ask and answer such questions during the annual President's Teaching Scholars Program (PTSP) conference. The daylong lineup of presentations and panel discussions took place Friday, March 4, at the Anschutz Medical Campus, focusing on the theme of "Critical, Creative, Interactive Learning."

Instructor Jim Walker from CU-Boulder's program for writing and rhetoric looked to add "playful" to the title, demonstrating how improv skills can enhance teaching and learning.

"We're just going to get up and play. It's the notion of tapping into what we have always had – we're born knowing how to play, but it gets repressed as we grow up," he told participants, whose laughter throughout the session was contagious. In small groups, participants were asked to introduce themselves, but not just with a spoken name – each had to incorporate a body move or gesture as a personal signature. Then others had to remember and repeat the name – and the move.

"It's about building energy in the classroom," Walker said. Other exercises emphasized trust-building and solving problems as a team.

A team from the Anschutz Medical Campus demonstrated its version of "Jeopardy!," a PowerPoint Presentation file that helps an instructor review material while assessing what students have learned and receiving instant feedback. The audience used classroom clickers or their own smartphones to respond with answers to questions; for the purposes of the demonstration, the lead query was decidedly irreverent: "What is Charlie Sheen doing at this exact moment?"

The stand-ins for Alex Trebek: Matthew Taylor, associate professor of adult clinical genetics, and Joshua Odom from undergraduate medical education, who showed how the program can be customized for different classroom applications.

Social media came into focus as a classroom tool throughout the conference. During his plenary address, Don Cooper, associate professor at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at CU-Boulder, showed how Facebook can be used to complement and facilitate interaction among students. In another session, Joanna Dunlap, associate professor of education and human development, and Patrick Lowenthal from academic technology/extended learning, both from CU Denver, discussed social presence theory, and which strategies are most effective at connecting educators and students for maximum learning potential. They shared results from a study that indicated students found more value in a once-a-semester, five-minute phone call with the instructor than ongoing use of Twitter.

The event opened with comments from CU President Bruce D. Benson and a welcome from Mary Ann Shea, director of the PTSP, a presidential initiative that endorses excellence in teaching by honoring faculty throughout the university who excel in teaching, scholarship and research. At the conclusion of the day's sessions, Shea proclaimed the conference the best in the series' three years.