The Power of Micro-Experiences: Transforming Students While Invigorating Faculty

Great teaching should be rewarding for students and energizing for educators. This refreshing post shares one experience that produced both of these outcomes.

On December 2, 2016, I shared some of the amazing educational experiences that were occurring at the University of the Cumberlands (UC), the largest private college in Kentucky. I was a co-facilitator with Drs. Tom Fish and Bob Dunston, UC faculty members and leaders, at the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), in Atlanta, GA.

Our workshop, Cultivating Appetites for Deep Learning: Enhancing Instruction and Improving Performance, demonstrated how UC’s metacognitive-based Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) is simultaneously transforming students, energizing faculty and staff and improving key quality measures.

This post spotlights one aspect of the session that powerfully resonated with the participants.

Teaching is a continual process of problem solving.Leonard Geddes, Founder of The LearnWell Projects

As part of my consultant role, I met with several faculty members individually to discuss ways to adapt the general training lessons to their respective course challenges. Dr. Laura Dennis, Professor of French and Chair of World Languages, was concerned that her students would perform poorly on their QEP’s signature assignment.

The task required students to write a high-stakes paper that clearly demonstrated high-level thinking. The paper, a considerable portion of their grade, would be rigorously graded using the rubric developed by the QEP team. During one of our training events, Dr. Dennis expressed that previous students’ writing products consisted of shallow reflections. Regardless of the changes she made, students didn’t demonstrate the depth of thinking that she was seeking.


Dr. Dennis’s Micro-Experience

One act of great teaching solves a multitude of problems. Dr. Dennis told me that her students had difficulty demonstrating ideal proficiency levels. I determined that a micro-experience would help her address each of her students’ problems simultaneously.

Micro-experience – an activity that provides students an opportunity to practice a skill that is indispensable to achieving successful outcomes in a course. I proposed that she use a micro-experience to generate the necessary cognitive processes within her students. These structured experiences help learners develop competencies that sustain them throughout an academic program and propel them in their college careers. Micro-experiences can be defining moments in students’ development as scholars and ultimately as lifelong learners.

Dr. Dennis and I completed our most consequential work prior to implementation of the micro-experience. We deconstructed the course, streamlined the outcomes and pinpointed the challenges students would face.  View our preparatory summation below.

Course Title:
Trends and Themes in French Cinema

Problem

The course’s signature assignment requires that students thoroughly evaluate a French film of their choosing. Based upon previous experiences, Dr. Dennis is concerned that her students will insufficiently analyze the film, leading to inadequate final products and poor grades.

  • Core Student Problem
  • Core Professor Problem

The students’ lack of film criteria knowledge will likely limit their ability to thoroughly analyze the film. They are likely to rely on simple recall and mental rehearsal strategies.

Dr. Dennis, an expert French culture, “suffers” from the curse of knowledge. The complex thinking skills she employs when watching films are deeply embedded. Thus, her deep knowledge and advanced skills distance her from her students’ experiences.

Solution

Integrate a micro-experience early in the course to provide the students an opportunity to identify their cognitive deficits and begin developing the analytical skills that their predecessors lacked.

The greatest challenge was convincing Dr. Dennis that the micro-experience would put her ahead of schedule with her content rather than competing with it.

Based upon previous experiences, I knew a defining moment would occur early in the course and that the experience would change the nature of the teaching and learning experience. I call this an inflection point.

The image below depicts the coveted transition of ownership where passive students become energetic learners and lecturer becomes facilitator.

By the end of the semester, the focus and direction of the course definitely shifted from being teacher-led to being student-led. Although I continued to provide the required films, readings, and assignment prompts, I was increasingly able to adopt the guide-on-the-side role in class discussions and student journal entries. Not only did student insights and inquiries push me in my own thinking and research, students actually continued to show interest in the topic of World War II even after the semester ended by posting articles on social media and tagging others in the class.

I think this shift happened at two distinct moments. I collected the journal entries in batches of 3 or 4. In the first batch, I simply read and gave feedback in the margins. In the second batch, in addition to giving feedback, I took our signature assessment rubric and applied a different section to each of the entries. I then encouraged students to reflect on how they could move to the next level for each category, whether a 1 to a 2 or a 3 to a 4. There was a huge improvement when I collected batch 3, and that continued until the end of the semester. This first moment happened around the time of the midterm exam.

The second was in our discussion of the film Lacombe Lucien, which we covered just after the midterm. This is one of the most challenging movies I have ever watched, and no matter how many times I see it, it invariably disturbs me with its moral gray areas and refusal to tell the viewer clearly what to think. I shared all this with my students and told them that if they saw any clear answers in it, I was listening. Well, they didn’t (I really don’t believe such a thing is possible with this film!), but they did have a lot to say. Moreover, we had a strange sort of luck. In the middle of one of the discussions, I was called out of the class for an emergency, and I told them to keep talking while I stepped out to handle the other issue. They cried, half-joking, “How can you leave us alone with this movie?!” When I came back in, maybe 10-15 minutes later, they were still completely on task and talking animatedly about the film. From that point on, I could often start a class discussion with only a very few words, sometimes as simple as showing a scene and saying, “Well, what do you think?” and they could take it from there. There were even times that I didn’t have to start the discussion at all.

The one thing that didn’t quite happen as neatly as I would have liked was students transferring their newfound skills to their research papers. The rough drafts were… rough. Yet with professor feedback, the final versions were much improved. In all but one case, students processed fairly substantive feedback and used it to improve their work, and not just with details like writing mechanics and MLA citation issues. More importantly, most addressed big-picture questions that required them to do significant self-evaluation and rewriting. I believe the metacognitive work done throughout the course helped in this process.

Mid-Semester Temperature Check

Dr. Dennis knew her course was going well! She was in her academic “groove.” In my work with educators, well-designed and executed metacognitive experiences are:

  • generative – connecting new insights with existing mental constructs,
  • transferrable – promoting skills and experiences that apply to all academic domains and tasks,
  • transformative – changing the nature of how students process information
  • transcendent – surpassing academic context and reverberating throughout the learner’s life.

See if you can detect these principles manifesting in Dr. Dennis’s students’ responses to their mid-semester journal prompt.

Sampling of Mid-Semester Journal Entries

Prompt: How has your thinking about film evolved in the first half of the semester? Has it changed the way you watch all films or just those seen in this class? Can you imagine ways your evolving thinking skills could apply beyond the realm of cinema?


  • Student 1
    Junior

    The way I think about film has radically evolved over the course of the semester. Thinking back to our first film we watched, Amelie, I watched it the first time for face value and entertainment. Film viewing was a mindless pastime.

    Now as I view films, I am constantly asking questions. Everything I see has some deeper underlying meaning. Things like the importance of music and color scheme have transferred over to my other classes and art areas.

    As I was analyzing a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, I kept thinking about the significance culturally of the colors he described in his poem. Every single element has a purpose and I feel as though I can never watch a film for entertainment again because even the comedies I love now have a new purpose and meaning.

  • Student 2
    Senior

    One of the things this class has made me more aware of is the role of the director in films. Before this class, the director was simply a name in the credits. Someone who conducted set and costume and yelled at actors. Through this semester, especially delving into researching directors like Claude Lanzmann or Alain Resnais, I realized the unique vision that directors have. Whether that vision is a moral point or artistic perception, directors take much time, analysis, and evaluation to discover the best ways of purposeful communication. Background research, careful casting, and location all play an invaluable role as well as timing of dialogue and logistics of cinematography.

    For example, by the time we got to “Is Paris Burning?”, I took carful note of how camera angles, music and scene transitions in the film described intersected with the plot, learning also to pay attention to the overlooked visual effects of camera panning and tracking. In “Lacombe Lucien,” I learned to also scrutinize dialogue, its presence and lack of presence, placement, and context. All of these skills I know I will take to viewing films outside of this class. Many films communicate their point without the viewer having to realize the lesson or work hard to understand, but learning how to analyze a film is, for me, like squeezing every bit of juice from an orange; it has taught me to maximize the flavor and experience.

    The technical skills of observation and deduction learned from film analysis can be applied to the input and output of life in society. These skills help with evaluating media and advertisement, things that along with film deal with visual and audio communications. Media in particular shapes society’s thinking radically and cunningly. The writers of media just as the directors of films, have experience directing the expected perceptions of views and discovering how to manipulate (if desired) the perception of viewers.

    The skills taken from film analysis also aid past the point of comprehending and interpreting input from outside sources and take communication to the level of output: evaluating methods that work and translating to my own communication through writing, art and conversation.

  • Student 3
    Junior

    So far in this semester I have learned that I will never be able to watch a movie like I could before. I will always be looking for ulterior motives and deeper messages in every movie. Even the series that I watch now, I look for things that we have discussed so far in class. When I have been with friends watching movies recently I’ve noticed that I will stop and look at them and say, “Hey, did you catch that?” Then they will say, “What are you talking about?” Then I have to play like I was just joking. I have learned that I will now forever be that person, that ruins movies for everyone else. The skills that I have been evolving from this class have really been helpful in other classes and daily activities actually. I am very surprised that I have gained as much as I have. I actually am so proud of all that I have gained from this class.

  • Student 4
    Junior

    As the semester has passed, the way I watch movies now, according to others who haven’t taken a class whose sole focus is to pick apart moview to the bone, is probably unbearable. Everything in every film means something now. From recurring colors in the background or clothing of characters to simple angles and film score. Motifs and foreshadowing are no longer the extent of my film analysis.

    Also, I’ve never really been able to read the origin of what a film was adapted from. Reading the books the film was originally based on is eye-opening as well. You then know things that people who have only watched the movie do not. It’s like you have all the deleted scenes right there in your head.

    Outside of this class, I’ve begun to use the analysis to look into various situations. I pay attention more. I use critical thinking. Strangely enough, this class has helped me quite a bit in my art classes.


Processing a Micro-Experience

A strong foundation of metacognitive knowledge, skills and experiences has been cultivated during my multi-year relationship with the University of the Cumberlands community. Many of these insights are compressed into Dr. Dennis’s micro-experience; however, the table below breaks down the key components of this activity.


  • Processing Micro-Experiences
  • Dr. Dennis’s mental categories are the cognitive tools by which she analyzes the film. The quantity and complexity of analytical filters enable her to extract much more meaningful insights from movies. This type of thorough analysis is the engine of her keen evaluations.

  •  

    Integrating Metacognition
  • Metacognition entails getting students to think about their thinking or in this case to think about the thinking involved in the task and their own cognitive processes. The professor wanted to include an in-class experience that would help students set the proper conditions for their thinking so that they would deploy the appropriate thinking skills for the task.

    The actionable question was: How can she expand students’ cognitive filters so that they too can sufficiently analyze and evaluate movies?


  • Blending Metacognition
    & the QEP in the Classroom
  • First activity – Students select a modern movie to watch and analyze away from class. Afterward, they write their analyses on the classroom’s whiteboard.

    Then Dr. Dennis leads the students in an exercise to categorize their analyses. (We anticipated that they would be limited to only a few categories.)

Next, she provides her analysis, which would consist of many more categories than those of the students.

Finally, Dr. Dennis engages in a consequential, targeted metacognitive conversation with the class. This discussion makes explicit connections to the role her analytical skills played in informing her ultimate evaluation.

She also names some of the skills and processes used such as listing, prioritizing, comparing, contrasting, and weighing. She explicitly uses language of the QEP rubric and the QEP project itself.
Dr. Dennis then discusses how the students use the QEP goals of discovering, engaging and evaluating in the development of their signature assignment. In this way, she’s ensuring connectivity – that the students make the cognitive leap of transferring the skills experienced in the micro-experience to the actual execution of the signature assignment.


Dr. Dennis’s end-of-the-semester journal entry prompt:

Journal entry 15: How did your thinking about film evolve over the course of the semester? How will you take what you learned beyond the walls of this class?

The following responses show the evolution of the students whose responses were included previously. According to Dr. Dennis, their responses are representative of the entire class.

  • Student 1
    Junior

    My film viewing experience has been totally altered after this class. When I watch an action movie, I no longer can just watch it for face value or entertainment. I now sit and pick through what the characters say in order to make a prediction about what is going to happen to them. I now analyze movies as I watch them.

    Before this class, I watched movies to be entertained, not analyze them for their greater meaning. This has translated to my writing as well. When I write, I think about more than just what the writer is saying. I think about the choice of their words and what things they chose to include or leave out when they write. Before this class, I did not analyze the effect of color and sound, but now see that it is an important part of writing and filmmaking. Artists are trying to say something with their art. It is more than just making something that looks or sounds good. Everything has a purpose, and I can use this knowledge in my other classes when I read literature, watch movies, look at a piece of art, or listen to a song.

  • Student 2
    Senior

    At the beginning of the semester I knew I valued films that were different, that carried a unique story, such as War Horse, or had a powerful soundtrack, like Jane Eyre. Through the course of the class, I’ve learned more about the technical elements that make a certain scene, montage, or film effective, such as camera angle, lighting, or absence of sound. I’ve learned to identify the presence of these and analyze the effect, and evaluate the overall projection of the film.

    The most important thing I have learned over this semester has been the evaluation of what I see projected at me. Films, as well as media and propaganda, have a message that the director or author is trying to pass on. Being aware of these intended messages will help me think critically about what I spend time with and endorse to others. The class has also taught me to value films that carry a strong message, such as Night and Fog and Indigènes, rather than films made simply to entertain. Although these films too have a message, such as “life is a game,” or “Just have fun,”

    I have learned to truly value films that make me think about what I believe and challenge me to perhaps change my thinking. Instead of being tempted to side with mainstream thought on topics I am unsure of, I have to be reinforced in the discipline of researching multiple opinions before making my own. I have also become more aware that I may never learn the true reason behind events or stories; I have learned to keep an open mind and challenge myself.

  • Student 3
    Junior

    My thinking about film has changed dramatically. I look at the big picture now. Before, I would need to watch a film five or six times before I asked questions. Now, I will stop the film, think, ponder, and then explore. I can’t believe how much this class has opened my eyes to things I never would have imagined. I have gained something so valuable from this class in how I think now, that there’s not a chance in heck I would stop now. Opening up so many pathways/adventures with just digging deeper has changed my world. I can’t just take something for face value. I have to explore, see the effects, the changes, everything. This will help me not only think deeper, but I will be able to help others more! My career field is all about helping others, and with the ability to think deeper and outside the box, I will soar at helping others.

  • Student 4
    Junior

    I believe my perception of film has grown incredibly over the semester. I am no longer able to just watch a film now; everything means something. Not only have I learned to watch out for all that is in the film, but I now look for all that is missing as well. Especially when there is no music at all. Film impersonates nature in that way. For example, as you are walking through nature, a sign that there is danger around is when the creatures of the wood are silent. You might hear a few crows warn one another, but there is mostly silence. In movies, if things become quiet, it’s either a moment of surrealism or a representation of a calm before the storm.

    This class has taught me not only about the mechanics of films, but the mechanics of human thought as well. How people react to tragedy and how governments use movies as propaganda or as a distraction.


A Multipotent Experience

One act of great teaching achieves several goals.

Educators view required work like QEP’s as burdensome and impractical.  However, Dr. Dennis’s micro-experience achieved each of the QEP’s faculty and student goals and student outcomes.  The corresponding table captures the synergistic alignment.

In addition to satisfying the QEP goals, this experience benefits students, faculty and the institution’s quality measures.

Students Are Transformed

Dr. Dennis’s students’ learning surpassed learning content. They made discoveries about themselves as thinkers and learners. Their conception of the world was enhanced. Their intrinsic confidence was boosted.

Educators Are Fortified

Dr. Dennis feels empowered. She’s been so moved by the experience that she’s boldly taking on a new challenge: presenting at an upcoming teaching and learning conference. Educators need big wins!  I’m confident this experience will become common for her in subsequent courses. (She’s already informed me that she’s been transferring the micro-experiences to other courses and witnessing similar effects.)

Institutions Flourish

Students who learn don’t leave. The University of the Cumberlands can expect great course reviews from Dr. Dennis’s students, as well as other QEP faculty.  These students will not only persist; they will thrive.

Comments 2

  1. Wow! It is amazing to find the good work done by my students presented so beautifully. This post does an excellent job showing their evolution and accomplishments. What’s more, you are absolutely correct – this experience gave my teaching all kinds of new energy and creativity. Thank you!

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks for the comment Laura. It was great to hear that your students have continued posting about the course throughout the Christmas holiday break, and that members of the community are taking an interest in your course! Keep up the great work!

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