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The POGIL effect: ETSU professor takes teaching method to new heights

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JOHNSON CITY (August 11, 2014) – Spend any time at all with Dr. Patrick Brown and his passion for teaching will become obvious. Still, at the end of his first year as a college professor in 2008, Brown, now an assistant professor of health sciences at East Tennessee State University, admits he was “frustrated” with his new profession.

“I put so much effort into my class. The students loved me. I was very personable. I was charismatic. I got great reviews from my students,” Brown recalls. “But at the end of the semester, half of the class was failing my exam. There was a real disconnect with what I thought I was teaching and what they were actually learning.”

Eager to improve, Brown attended a workshop that summer on a teaching method called process oriented guided inquiry learning, or POGIL. It is a student-centered instructional approach that simultaneously develops content mastery and key process skills like critical thinking, effective communication and teamwork.

“It blew my skull,” Brown says. “They are so thoughtful in developing this. Every piece of these POGIL activities that students do has a purpose. Students are never told anything directly. It’s all about discovery. They are constructing knowledge from scratch.”

That, Brown says, is a far cry from the “old-sage-on-the-stage” model of teaching in which professors simply stand in front of a classroom and lecture for an hour. Now, instead of telling his students what they need to know and expecting them to learn it, Brown uses POGIL activities to give them hands-on opportunities to figure it out themselves.

“We all have preconceived notions, prior knowledge that affect how we learn. On the first day of class, I ask my students, ‘How many of you are a 38-year-old straight man, cradle Catholic from southern Appalachia?’ I don’t get anyone raising their hands,” he says. “And that’s the point. How can I expect a 19-year-old black woman from Memphis to have the same view of the world as I do? I can’t.”

POGIL originally began with activities to teach college-level chemistry. Activities now exist in a variety of subjects at both the college and high school levels.

In a POGIL classroom, students work in small groups on specially designed materials. Those materials supply students with data or information for interpretation followed by guiding questions to lead them toward the formulation of their own valid conclusions. The professor serves as a facilitator, observing and periodically addressing individual and classroom-wide needs.

The method is based on three main determinations about learning – first, that teaching by telling does not work; second, that students who are part of an interactive community are more likely to be successful; and third, that knowledge is personal and students develop greater ownership over material when they are given an opportunity to construct their own understanding of it.

“It requires a lot more work on everybody’s part. The students can’t just sit there and you, as the teacher, have to be doing that one-on-one mentoring in the classroom,” Brown says. “But it works. Students learn better.”

The proof, he adds, is in the overall improvement of his students and their grades.

“My fail rate on my final exam was almost 20 percent when I was just lecturing,” Brown says. “With POGIL, it dropped steadily to about 5 percent – and that 5 percent is the ones that just gave up.”

Brown doesn’t just use POGIL activities in the classroom – he creates them and even teaches other educators how to use them.

“I drank the Kool-Aid,” he jokes. “After that summer conference, I went home and wrote the world’s first anatomy and physiology POGIL activities.”

He has since written approximately 40 such activities. Brown also serves as the POGIL coordinator for the Southeast region and offered a three-day workshop to area educators on the teaching method over the summer.

For more information about POGIL, contact Brown at 423-439-4566 or or visit www.pogil.org.

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