The Four-Year Classroom

Landing soon in Trinity’s faculty and staff mailboxes: the CTL’s semi-annual brochure listing our fall-semester programs and announcing our year-long theme. Last year, we organized events around the idea of “Cultivating the Curious Student.” This year’s theme remains concerned with the intellectual gestalt of a liberal-arts college like Trinity, but it turns to a particular, often hard-to-grasp aspect of students’ academic experience. If last year our speakers and panelists considered the ways students become engaged in intellectual life, this year we are wondering how that engagement develops over the course of students’ careers here. Read on for our description of this year’s theme, and post comments at the bottom.

The Four-Year Classroom: Student Development in the Liberal-Arts College

What makes a liberal-arts education more than the sum of 36 credits? Of course, much of students’ learning happens inside the classroom, but we also know that learning outside the classroom is as significant, and for some students, where the greatest transformation occurs. That truism is about space: where does learning happen? Equally important is a less common observation about time: how long does it take for learning to happen? Many of the skills and habits of mind we want to teach our students take more than a semester for them to acquire, and many of their most effective and memorable learning experiences transcend the 14-week confines of individual courses. Conducting research in a lab; carrying out a major scholarly or creative capstone project; collaborating with a community organization; forging connections between classes and disciplines; and, in the broadest sense, achieving intellectual independence—all these involve a developmental process that can span a students’ time in college.

This year, the Center for Teaching and Learning initiates a campus conversation about the developmental aspects of a liberal-arts education. Do we have a shared vision of the four-year arc of our students’ learning? Is it up to students to discover their own arc, or do faculty have a role in helping them describe it? Do materials and procedures, like portfolios or advising practices, play a role? What motivates students to pursue the kinds of experiences—research, interdisciplinary work, community engagement—that build bridges from course to course and semester to semester? Is there an intellectual gestalt that defines Trinity’s “four-year classroom,” and how do our individual classrooms and our individual interactions with students relate to it?

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