by Matt Kostek, Assistant Professor at Duquesne University, Rangos School of Health Sciences, Physical Therapy Department
Begin with the end in mind is a mantra worthy of reflection before beginning any meaningful project. Yet in teaching, as in life, there are times when we just observe. If uncertain of the goal, observation not only yields discoveries but can help us learn the landscape or define the question. In teaching, however, we are told that we need concise learning objectives. Objectives can be measured as a learning outcome, which is important not just because the accrediting bodies tell us so, but because outcomes tells us if we are accomplishing our goal – student learning. To improve outcomes, we can change our teaching: modify presentation style or content, add new assignments, or use analogies to which students can relate. This is something that all good professors are trying to accomplish to varying degrees in different classes. This was my initial interest when I heard about discussions on campus regarding Spiritan Pedagogy. I think it was an email that I normally would have just deleted, but because it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn about the Spiritan Charism and about pedagogy I decided to attend.
The discussion groups and panel presentations were informative and intriguing and upon reflection, led to new insights. I thought I found something useful but was not sure what to do with it. Some of the concepts like openness to the spirit, global concern, and concern for the poor seemed like noble topics and ideas that would be good to instill in this generation of college students. But I didn’t see how I was going to use these ideas in my basic life-science lecture class of over 100 students. The discussion groups, for me, were an idea generator. I set out to trial a few of these ideas with my large lecture class.
I attempted to incorporate physiologic descriptions of organ function with new examples– Spiritan inspired examples. For instance, I described kidney or pulmonary (lung) function coupled with the fact that most insurance companies do not pay for pulmonary rehabilitation or that a disproportionate number of African Americans suffer from chronic kidney disease and that their socioeconomic status is likely contributing to disease severity. Keep in mind, these issues are not typically discussed when teaching cellular organ function at this level. So these stories were mostly side notes to the main lecture topics. My idea was to bring awareness of current situations that affect the poor and under-served in a context that relates to human physiology. The lectures seemed to go well and I received some positive feedback in the form of questions and discussion during and after those lectures. I did not attempt, however, to quantify outcomes, it was exploratory and I was observing. There were no test questions relating to these topics and no request to address this on my SES (student evaluation survey) reports. Yet, I did receive a few comments expressing confusion as to why these topics were even mentioned, they seemed distracting, and didn’t appear on tests. Thus, while stimulating thought I was unable to convey with clarity the import of these issues in the context of human physiology.
What I observed using Spiritan pedagogy inspired techniques is that they are feasible in a large classroom. But if I want to know about the effectiveness of these techniques, I will need to consider what I am trying to accomplish. If I want students to understand and assimilate these ideas or, at the very least, not confuse them then I need them on board with the idea and the intended outcome. If the examples are to be seen as important and relevant, then they should be evaluated (e.g. test or quiz questions). Evaluation emphasizes the importance, encourages understanding through study, and gives a quantifiable result. The result can be used to modify the approach. This “closes the loop” as our accreditors might like to say. Spiritan pedagogical techniques can, I think, be incorporated into any classroom but until we know what we are trying to accomplish, it will be difficult for us or our students to know when we have reached the goal.