Studying the Block: An Update from Heather Fedesco, Mellon Pedagogy Researcher
Heather Fedesco, CC’s first Mellon pedagogy researcher, spent Blocks 1-4 studying the Block Plan. In a position funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Fedesco’s role is to investigate the distinctive pedagogical outcomes of CC’s unique academic program. The college will then use what is learned to refine CC’s Block Plan model, and share it with others in higher education who want to learn from CC’s success in implementing the Block Plan. Now, some of the research findings are providing evidence to explain why the Block Plan works.
With more than 1,600 responses from students, assessing over 300 different courses, Fedesco spent Block 5 poring over survey results. She says one thing is very clear in this preliminary analysis: Field trips are beneficial for students.
“The data show that trips positively affect student motivation and outcomes,” she says. “CC spends a good amount of time and funding on these trips, so it’s important to show they are making a difference.” It’s a result that speaks specifically to the Block Plan; students at colleges where they’re taking multiple classes at once simply cannot take field trips the way they can at CC. “Here, it’s the norm. It’s a big reason why students come to CC, so we can show that it’s really valuable in terms of their learning experience; we have the data to show that now.”
By using self-determination theory, which is a theory of motivation, Fedesco’s research assesses three basic psychological needs; when each of those is met, it creates intrinsic motivation for students, which leads to improved performance. Those needs are perceived autonomy — students feel like they have choice or a say in how they go about their learning; perceived competence — students feel they can meet the learning objectives of the course; and perceived relatedness — students feel connected with their instructors and their peers.
“I wanted to see how this theory of motivation played out at CC by comparing courses with field trips and those without. My idea was that courses with trips allow students to form greater, deeper relationships with professors and peers, really addressing the relatedness component of the theory,” she says.
Fedesco found that students felt more autonomous in classes where they participated in field trips. “They also felt like they had more competence, and as expected, they formed a deeper connection with instructors and peers.”
Fedesco also found that students were more interested in the course when they went on at least one field trip — that is, they were more intrinsically motivated. Students also perceived that they learn more in classes where they have a field trip. Students even had higher final grades when they took a class with at least one field trip.
“I tested what happens when you include more field trips—the more you include, the deeper the relationships, the stronger the connections,” she says. “Students were also more interested in the course. That’s the variable we truly want to tap: Raising student interest level, because that can lead to greater student outcomes. That’s a really good thing to show.”
Students reported on a variety of on-campus and off-campus field trips, which were included in the analyses. When just focusing on off-campus trips, like the Denver Art Museum or Garden of the Gods, and overnight trips like camping, visits to the Baca Campus, or classes that took place entirely off campus, out of state, or abroad, the same pattern of results, for the most part, emerged.
Interestingly, on-campus trips also make an impact, such as visiting the IDEA Space, the Fine Arts Center, Sacred Grounds, or participating in events, performances, or meals together outside the classroom. These types of trips may also occur at colleges operating on a more traditional course schedule, however the flexibility of the Block Plan seems to allow for these trips to occur more frequently, and we now know that more trips can be even more beneficial to students.
Fedesco says the results also provide some advice. To make field trips even better, students must understand the purpose for the trip or out-of-classroom experience. “The purpose can simply be, ‘I want us to get to know each other better,’” says Fedesco. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the subject matter. Maybe it’s just to set the tone for the rest of the course, for example. Professors should be up front with that and should explicitly state why getting to know each other will lead to a better learning environment.”
She also notes that in some cases, students may need a better sense of how they should be spending free time on a trip, which can be addressed with clear expectations in advance. A post-trip debrief also helps students make connections between what they’ve experienced and concepts that apply to their course.
Field trips also provide students time to interact with people in the community, and Fedesco says those interactions were inspiring for the students, giving them a sense of agency that they can make a difference. She says those interactions also serve to provide different points of view on the same issue, allowing students to sift through those different perspectives, promoting critical thinking.
“When students are faced with concepts that might conflict with their previously held beliefs or notions, they pay attention to it more and think about it more, so that is a great way to use field trips,” she says. “Grappling with that is a really beneficial learning experience.”
Fedesco participated in numerous class field trips as part of the research process. She says that regardless of the topic it was evident students and faculty were connected with one another.
“There is a strong sense of community here at CC; you get that in the classroom and on the field trips, and a lot of it comes down to the nature of the students being open and welcoming and interested in facilitating a sense of community. That is really beneficial.”
These are just the preliminary analyses; Fedesco will also be exploring comparisons across academic divisions and will test whether class size is a factor. She will also be coding interview data to analyze and develop themes, to identify results that speak specifically to the learning experience here at CC.
In May, she presents at the Crown Faculty Center lunch, where she will look at new findings and additional conclusions. And, during Block 7, she’s observing one more class to take a look at what happens when a course takes place entirely off campus (this one will be at the Newberry Library in Chicago). “It’s really a unique CC thing,” Fedesco says.