Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

QU 101: An Approach

In Research, Teaching on January 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm

blog_qu101

By Thomas Williams, Part-Time CAS Faculty

With thanks to my colleague and project partner, Betsy Rosenblum.

There’s an unmistakable connection between critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and QU 101, yet among students there remains a popular and misguided perception that it’s a class without a purpose.

This perception gap is troubling.  A course fully devoted to improving the quality of one’s thinking is exceptional, and essential to success in today’s globalized, knowledge-based economy.

Consider a recent report issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that noted most (93 percent) business and nonprofits leaders believe that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”[i]

The QU Learning Paradigm correctly identifies this issue as a strategic imperative, arguing that the habits and skills of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and problem solving are essential to student learning. We agree, and believe that the QU 101 project detailed in this essay is an effective response to the paradigm’s call for action and a fix to the troublesome perception gap. Our pilot blends Problem Based Learning (PBL) with two well-established business practices: Design Thinking and Knowledge Management (KM). It’s a team teaching venture with two classes working in parallel, but coming together at specific junctures to share insights and lessons learned. 

Given approval last spring by Dr. Jill Shahverdian, we met often over the summer to develop a syllabus and a rough project assessment plan, which included a blog to record and track our progress (QU101.wordpress.com). With Dr. Shahverdian’s encouragement we also applied for and won a 2013-14 Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Grant from the Faculty Scholars Program. As a PBL project, we planned the entire semester around having students wrestle with what the business world calls a “wicked problem” – a problem so complex it has no discernible answer. In short, we gave them a purpose. Specifically we asked them to consider the conundrum alluded to by Wes Moore in his book (our student’s summer reading) The Other Wes Moore, namely:

  • Can individuals take control of their environment?
  • Can they avoid becoming a victim of circumstance?
  • Are individuals always and inescapably linked to community influences and current norms, even when they think they’re deciding and acting for themselves?

Their approach to these questions, this problem, led them to conduct research, (from the reader as well as through interviews and surveys) debate their ideas, and ultimately forge consensus by preparing and delivering a formal presentations to their partner class. Their exploration did raise questions of identity, community, involvement, and justice, but only as means to the larger end. These questions added meaning as well to their personal success plans, which represent the Wes Moore conundrum in microcosm. Although named a PBL experiment, the real critical thinking and intellectual curiosity enabler turned out to be Knowledge Management, supported by Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a structured and iterative way for students to understand and frame complex environments. Design is a creative approach to problem solving, but it’s as much a mindset as it is a process. It’s about seeing problems holistically through interconnected variables.

Knowledge Management is essentially a set of business processes that help students develop shared-understanding for decision-making.  Among these tools are using technology to capture and share the key points of class discussion, using After-Action Reviews (AARs) to take stock of their progress, finding ways to integrate the efforts of small working groups, and formally collaborating to triangulate ideas and generate new insights.

You would be correct to note how these KM practices sound like a new way to describe normal classroom management. The major difference in our pilot is that we ceded authority to our students and let them run the class. More often than not we stepped back and allowed them to draft the work plans, craft the problem and thesis statements, select the research methods, including what to read and when, and lead virtually all the discussions.

In the main, PBL classrooms are democratic; faculty act as advisors. In our role we would suggest essays to add new perspectives to their ideas, and help them work through and understand the full breadth and depth of their selected readings. In PBL, faculty also serve as project managers, enforcing academic rigor and tracking indicators and evidence of learning. Faculty must be comfortable with ambiguity as learning does not always occur on a set schedule and sometimes there’s more value in chaos than a well formed but controlled discussion. That said, faculty must be adaptive and ready at a moment’s notice to offer mini-lessons on any reading, topic, or applicable process. They must be scholars of teaching and learning more than of any discrete discipline.

The pilot was designed to build gradually toward this student-empowered end. It ran in four distinct phases, each punctuated by a presentation to the partner class to share insights, and an AAR to self-discover ways to improve their work before moving forward.

In Phase I we eased the transition from High School to University with a series of foundational classes meant to provide students with the tools necessary for their project, including: the basics of critical thinking and argumentation, working in teams, research methods, presentation basics, and an introduction to various conceptual problem solving and knowledge management tools. This phase was crucial to building confidence. We knew that if we pushed too hard too soon, we’d see counter-productive chaos and a degree of paralysis. We based these lessons on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM) which in its own way provides maximum student involvement and gives us an effective way to introduce the democratic classroom.

In Phases II and III their mission was to forge consensus around the meaning of the terms “individual” and “community.” In Phase IV, they used this shared understanding – but not always agreement – to work out their ideas on the aforementioned Wes Moore conundrum. Please know that during these latter phases we deliberately associated their actions with the vocabulary and skills learned in Phase I. Our intent was to link and anchor what they were doing with the often abstract constructs of critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. We believe many of our students see topics like intellectual curiosity as the purview of some “other” more gifted student, and not easily attainable. It’s our job to correct that. We may not be able to teach curiosity, per se, but we can make it less of a mystery.

Lastly, know that this classroom requires a culture built on trust, not rules. We created policies that assumed the best in our students, but provided the necessary provisions to address the occasional offender. We wanted our students as willing participants in the community of practice, not as captives to our authority.

As partners in learning, we allowed (and permitted the use of) cell phones, tablets, and laptops in class. On a practical note, these are the tools for research, writing, and communicating. If we do our jobs well, these tools of learning are no more distracting than a pencil and notebook used for doodling. To assist in this effort, we asked our students (in week one) to debate and construct a contract that obligates them to mutually agreed-upon standards of behavior and grading. In our experience, students do not take advantage of this trust and we are able to accept their proposal without amendment.

There are risks to this teaching and learning strategy, particularly with respect to content delivery and student behavior. We disagree with the argument that this project is less rigorous when compared with the traditional syllabus, and is an abdication of our responsibility to enforce a University-like experience. Pointedly, we think by putting the onus for learning where it belongs, on the University student, we’re doing precisely what is needed to capture the habits of mind and tools of life-long learning that are the hallmarks of any good liberal arts program.

With assistance from the QU Office of Academic Assessment and Research, we will have some quantifiable data in January after a pre-post measure using CIRP data, but in the meantime we’ve been encouraged by the early indicators of success: observation reports from peer faculty, School Deans, and Peer Catalyst Mentors, quality student writings and presentations, informal (anonymous) survey results, and frankly, their daily involvement and engagement.

Effective teaching and learning for the 21st Century requires some adaptive thinking. We must balance the pursuit of intrinsic knowledge with the practical, the ideal student versus the reality, and compete with the iPhone and X-box. This QU 101 Re-Imagined Project delivers. It creates the community of practice we desire, reaffirms the connection between critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and QU 101, and most importantly prepares our students to succeed in today’s knowledge economy.


[i] Employers More Interested in Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Than College Major, April 10, 2013, Press Release. http://www.aacu.org/press_room/press_releases/2013/leapcompactandemployersurvey.cfm (Accessed November 2, 2013)

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  1. Reblogged this on Re-Imagining QU101.

  2. Really interesting course. I would be extremely interested in a follow-up study that tracked the students who completed it against a control group. Id like to know how participants in the pilot class fare in their other courses, and compared to other students.

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