Christian Brothers University Helps Students Learn by Making Them Teach

You’ve heard the old adage, “You haven’t learned something unless you can teach it to somebody else.”

What if that were the attitude with which we approached year-end exams?

For one professor, it is.

Dr. Stan Eisen, Professor of Biology and Director of Pre-Professional Health Programs at Christian Brothers University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about his creative alternative to a traditional final exam, and the benefits of such experiential learning opportunities.

Creative Alternatives to Traditional Final Exams

“It started off when my oldest grandchild was seven,” Stan told us. “She’s now 11.”

With his granddaughter serving as inspiration and muse, Stan thought, “Why not offer my students the alternative of writing a children’s book on all the diseases that cause
abdominal pain and diarrhea that a kid might get in his or her school cafeteria?”

Faced with a choice between crafting a gross-out children’s book or yet another final exam, the students chose the more creative alternative. This semester marks the fifth time the students have opted to to write a book.

Here and there, cohorts have concluded that there’s too much work involved throughout the entire semester and they would rather just get it over with at the end of the semester with the final exam. But most students relish the chance to show what they’ve learned in new ways.

Differences in Learning Outcome Measurements

Traditional exams squeeze facts out of the brain like water from a sponge. Students spill information onto the page so the professor can see whether  they’ve learned a sufficient amount of material.

The children’s book concept measures something different.

Stan shows learners a picture of the grandchild of interest and says, “This is your audience, and I want you to teach them what you know at a level that they can understand.”

His students get enthusiastic about sharing what they know, which often morphs into sharing what they know in a discreet, acceptable manner to family members.

“I mean, this is parasitology,” Stan said, “and they learn to be able to clear the Thanksgiving table if they want to with the facts that they’ve learned about parasite life cycles.”

As part of a lecture exam, Stan even gives his student an extra credit question: Imagine that you are at Thanksgiving dinner. You are stuffed to the gills, but then grandma brings in you favorite dessert in the whole world. What parasite are you going to talk about that will clear the dining table so you can have your favorite dessert all to yourself?

“The answers,” Stan said, “are not only accurate, but they are eloquent.”

Actually, for students, the payoff of writing a book for children during the fall semester is
they are creating a Christmas gift for a family member.

The Time Constraints of Final Exam Alternatives

There are time constraints to an alternative measurement vis-a-vis a traditional exam.

That’s why the idea has to be floated early on in the semester, and the students have to be onboard unanimously.

“They realize there is a lot of time involved,” Stan said, “and so with say three weeks into a semester … the week after fall break, I want to see a progress report of both text and illustrations.”

The word count and the sophistication of the text along with the drawings has to be in tune with the target age of the child. For example, this semester the students are writing a book on parasites that turn their hosts into zombies. So there are nine different parasites and so I have 10 groups, one group for each of the parasites. They’ll write a text on the conversation between the teacher and the two students who are taking a stroll through a park, and then there will be one last group of students who are the artists and they will be distributed among the groups of the authors in order to create the images that the authors want to see in their section of the book.

Final Advice for Institutions Considering Final Exam Alternatives

“I have asked the head of the education department to talk about what is involved in writing children’s books,” Stan said. “I love to see her eyes and her facial expression when the students describe to her what the content of the book is. She’ll say, ‘That is disgusting.”

Mission accomplished.

But she can also help students know if they have created a character whom kids will identify with. Plus, she will proof and edit text as it comes in to her for comments.

“I have found that to be a very useful colleague to have in order to launch this as a project.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Stan Eisen from Christian Brothers University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.