Professor of history and assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University

Peter Felten: «Education is human work, and students need to be the actors in that work»

  • Research

First publication date: 27/06/2019

Peter Felten. Photo: UPV/EHU

Peter Felten has visited Bilbao to participate in EuroSoTL 2019, where he has given a lecture entitled “Relationships matter: Moving relationship-rich experiences from the periphery to the center of higher education learning and teaching”. The SoTL or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning concept is very widespread in English-speaking countries, but it is not a familiar one in Spain, Italy and France.

Peter Felten is a professor of history, assistant provost for teaching and learning, and executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University (USA). His current research focuses on the influence of human relationships, and on individual and institutional change, in undergraduate education.

You conduct research into the importance of human relations in university education. How can a conversation transform the students and get them involved?

Our research suggests that are at least three ways that conversations can powerfully affect students. One is they can help students make connections between what they're doing in this course or in this program or in these studies with things they care about. So, it helps the students develop a sense of purpose in what they're studying and learning.

A second has to do with a sense of motivation. Students in the USA, at least, often will work even harder if they feel someone else cares what they're doing, that their work isn't just for themselves. We hear often in our interviews with students, “I didn't want to disappoint my professor.” Students only say that when they have a relationship with that professor; if they don't know the professor, they aren’t concerned about disappointing her.

And then the last and maybe the most important but the hardest is that in those conversations sometimes a student will recognize a potential in themselves that they haven't seen before. Students often say in interviews: “the professor saw something in me that I didn't know existed”. That is very exciting and empowering for students, when someone else is noticing something positive in you.

«What does it mean to learn in a world where we all have mobile phone that can instantly access a library full of facts and knowledge?»

What are the new fields to be explored in teaching so that better learning can be achieved?

There are many possibilities, but I am most intrigued by two. One is about how do we help students take more responsibility for their own learning. In the USA, students come to university out of an education system that is very test oriented and that does not often ask students to take the initiative or to act on their own curiosity. However, if you want students to leave university with the capacities and habits of life-long learners, students need to practice being the one who is responsible for learning and for judging their own knowledge. They need to see themselves as the primary actors in the learning process. That's a big shift for students:  from being a passive recipient of education or to being an active agent. So how do we help students do that in our classrooms and at our institutions? 

And the second field has to do with technology, particularly related to artificial.  What does it mean to learn, and what does it mean to know something, in a world where we all have phones in our pockets that can instantly access a library full of facts and knowledge? What does it mean to be an educated person in the modern world? And what kinds of capacities do students need to develop so that they can learn to live, to work, and to be citizens in a world where technology will be even more important in the future? Because when I went to university I went there partly because that's where the knowledge was. Nowadays, knowledge is everywhere. I think those of us in higher education need to think hard about what it means to be educated in the world as it will be in the future – and we need to be sure our curricula, programs, and teaching prepare students to thrive in and contribute positively to that world.

Could you tell me about the 2 or 3 best teaching practices at the university that you have come across during your professional career and which are designed to help the students learn better?

It is hard to answer this question. I'm a historian by training so I think everything is contextual. Different teaching practices will be successful with different students in different disciplines and contexts. Still, I think two things are particularly important in teaching and learning in history. One is for students to write a lot for different audiences. Writing a wide variety of assignments challenges students to think differently about what they know and to think critically about the audience of each piece of their writing. This positions the student as an actor, as the agent in her learning.

The other is that students need to be really immersed in their learning. My opinion on this is based on a role playing approach to teaching and learning called “Reacting to the Past”. Each student is assigned a role in a particular moment in history, and they have use their historical knowledge to speak and write from the perspective of their assigned role. In Reacting, students argue with peers about historical questions in ways that require them to immerse themselves in a different time and place. In Reacting, students often become motivated for different reasons than in a typical university course. Usually in my class they're primarily working to obtain a grade. In Reacting, they're competing with some of the classmates and there are collaborating with other peers to achieve certain goals. It´s fascinating to watch the impact that Reacting produces. For example, my students rarely come into my class caring about Puritan theology, but because of the Reacting game they become passionate about understanding the worldview of Puritans in New England.  I think that kind of immersive classroom experience is so much richer than what often happens in class where students don't engage very deeply with ideas.

You are a member of the Gardner Institute, an American foundation that works in pursuit of equity in higher education. Is there any hope that equal opportunities at American universities can be achieved?

I have hope that we can at least become more equitable. The work we are doing with some universities around the USA is showing real promise for improving student outcomes. For example, in the USA people talk about graduation gaps. Studies show that white students often graduate at higher rates than African-American students, even when you control for a number of other factors like academic preparation. The Gardner Institute partners with faculties and administrators to think about the structures of the university, the supports for students and the ways we teach. Through sustained campus-wide efforts, many institutions have been able to reduce or eliminate the graduation gap. This takes hard work and it takes continuing work, but I think we can do this. In the US, many of our students come to university doubting themselves, but they often are more capable than they know. What we have to do is to challenge them and support them in ways that allow them to achieve their potential.

«I'm not teaching just any students, I'm teaching these particular students»

What matters most in education?

Education is a human endeavor. It's human work. A long time ago, a professor said to me: “You think that you are teaching history but you’re not. You are teaching students history, you can´t forget that the students are people who are learning. Don´t miss the point that students are the most important item in the classroom”.

Additionally, I´m not teaching just any students, I´m teaching these particular students. I need to think carefully about what they are learning, how can I motivate them… I can´t just use the same approaches for all different students. So, there is not one best way to teach in higher education. The only thing that is in common in education is people learning together

What do you think about the University of the Basque Country?

I've been very impressed with the work of the University of the Basque Country. You and your colleagues have dedicated time to thinking deeply about teaching and learning, and how they can affect and transform students’ lives. That’s unusual in higher education, unfortunately. What I’ve seen here is a real commitment to thinking about the students´ experiences and how we can help them to prepare for the lives that they are going to lead after the graduate.