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Today@Sam Article

 

EWCAT Program Aims To Turn Students Into Independent Thinkers

Jan. 8, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Tammy Parrett

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Doctor Douglas Krienke teaching class
Students signing up for classes in English, history, philosophy and sociology this spring may find themselves in a section that utilizes the EWCAT approach. The Ethics, Western Civilization and American Traditions program is an innovative approach to teaching that encourages a deeper analysis of coursework through primary source material and peer-led discussions. So far, it's been working, according to those who've helped create the program at SHSU, including Douglas Krienke (above), who teaches courses on Shakespeare, the Western World, mythology and Tudor and Stuart drama in the SHSU English department. —Photos by Brian Blalock

 

Many students go into college with the idea that after a few years of going to the occasional class, skimming the study guide, and memorizing the test material right before the final, they will have a degree and be ready for the real world.

However, some professors are now beginning to ask why students don’t consider their college experience to be part of the real world.

In 2010, John de Castro, professor of psychology and former dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sam Houston State University, expressed his concern for what he believed was an apparent decline in personal ethics and integrity displayed in today’s society. This inspired him to develop the Ethics, Western Civilization and American Traditions program.

EWCAT is designed as an innovative approach to core classes that, in theory, would motivate students to not only memorize course material, but also analyze the material on a deeper level to help influence the way that they see the world.

De Castro wanted to create an environment that would connect students with the values of western civilization, while challenging them to create a better understanding of their own values. So one essential component of the EWCAT approach is the use of powerful works—such as Sophocles’s “Antigone,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince” or Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography—as texts.

“EWCAT exists to encourage students to stop thinking of college as something they have to do in order to be successful,” said Kenneth Hendrickson, professor of history and associate dean of CHSS. “College should be seen as a training camp that transforms the student into a different person from the one they were on their first day of their freshman year.”

The program is widely used among history, English, philosophy and sociology classes.

EWCAT:

Straight from the Students

“During this course, my ways of thinking truly changed. I read the texts differently than I had in high school and I learned a lot more from them.”

—A student EWCAT evaluation
from Jason Payton’s class.

 

“One thing I really learned to do was critically think. When you read something to really think about what the story is trying to tell you, you look between the fine lines and really analyze the text.”

A second student
EWCAT evaluation

While professors usually tailor the curriculum to fit their specific needs, Hendrickson’s EWCAT classes use the first two meetings each week to introduce the course material, during which time students are encouraged to integrate electronic components into the classroom environment as a ready reference for simple questions and in-depth issues. The remaining session is dedicated to peer-led team learning.

PLTL allows students to discuss the material in a more relaxed environment without the presence of an instructor. The class is broken up into smaller groups, and students are asked to act as peer leaders, who guide the discussion and help unveil more complex issues relating to the texts.

“It encourages students to think critically and seek answers to the questions that matter to them,” said Jason Payton, assistant professor of English. “I believe they felt freer to experiment in their thinking than they did in regular sessions.”

“In the peer-led discussions, students have the opportunity to expand on the ideas and issues discussed in class without any pressure from me (as the teacher). In other words, they relate to these situations in a personal way,” said Douglas Krienke, professor and associate chair of English.

When Hendrickson was approached about teaching a history section of the program after its conception, he was uncertain that the approach would be successful.

“I was a little skeptical, because I wasn’t sure that students would use the discussion time wisely. I was concerned that students would meander off and lose focus,” he recalled.

It didn’t take long for him to understand that this technique would innovate the way that students saw the world.

“I became this really big convert,” Hendrickson said. “What I found was that even though I didn’t lecture anything, the students picked up an awful lot. And by working it over in their minds, it was sticking a lot better in their heads.”

Once he saw the impact that the approach had on students, he transformed his teaching style—even in his non-EWCAT courses—in a way that mirrors the success he had with EWCAT.

Although he only teaches part-time now, he said he has completely eliminated tests from his curriculum. He believes that students should not strive to memorize material, but they should concentrate on exploring the material in a way that relates to them and using this new perspective to show that they understand course material.

“For example, say we’re talking about the Constitution. I might lecture them for a couple of classes; then the class will generate a list of terms, ideas and problems relating to the Constitution,” Hendrickson said. “From that point, we use subsequent classes to begin tackling those problems. Within two weeks, they would have their peer-led session.”

Payton, who has been teaching English and composition classes for 10 years, also is a firm believer in the EWCAT curriculum.

“This was, by far, the most rewarding experience I have had in the composition classroom. The themed approach of the EWCAT curriculum allows students at the freshman level the opportunity to pursue a single question vigorously for an entire semester,” he said. “Great books produce better writing because the material is more substantive and more complex in nature than that presented by the kinds of short, pop culture essays that often populate modality-based composition syllabi.”

There are many benefits of taking EWCAT courses, versus traditional courses. Short stories and essays that make up a number of traditional curriculum do not require students to focus on a single issue and think about it on a deeper and more mature level. Heavy testing encourages students to do nothing more than retain knowledge for a semester at a time.

students having a group discussion
Peer-led discussion—which removes the teacher from the classroom to allow students to talk about their assignments—is a big part of the EWCAT program, a part that students have responded favorably to. I believe they felt freer to experiment in their thinking than they did in regular sessions, said Jason Payton, assistant professor of English.
more students having group discussion

On the other hand, students benefit from the intense focus that comes with EWCAT curriculum. These classes ask that students read in-between the lines to fully understand the “big picture.”

In fall 2012, Frank Fair, professor and program coordinator of philosophy, was asked to conduct a study comparing freshman composition classes taught using the EWCAT approach and classes taught using the traditional approach, which included an essay assigned to all students at the beginning and end of each semester.

“The people in the EWCAT sections made considerable progress in terms of their essays. That was really encouraging,” Fair said. “They also showed significant advances in their motivation to think critically.”

The students taking EWCAT courses have overwhelmingly responded well. One anonymous comment revealed that a student appreciated being considered smart enough to read the original texts selected for that class.

“During this course, my ways of thinking truly changed. I read the texts differently than I had in high school and I learned a lot more from them,” said another anonymous student exit comment from Payton’s class.

Another said, “One thing I really learned to do was critically think. When you read something to really think about what the story is trying to tell you, you look between the fine lines and really analyze the text.”

“During the class, we never ignored the teaching of rhetoric, logic, standard American usage and writing discerning prose,” Krienke added. “When students go on into the business environment, employers want people who demonstrate not only ethical and civic responsibility, but also critical thinking and writing skills.”

The program has proven extremely successful at SHSU, and this has led professors and administrators from schools like Baylor and Stephen F. Austin State University to reach out for more information.

In fact, when Abbey Zink, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, heard about the position at SHSU, she became interested because of what she had seen and heard about the program at conferences.

“She said she applied, in part, because she had heard this experience of what we were doing here, and she wanted to come and be a part of it and help grow it,” Hendrickson said.

“EWCAT doesn’t cost any more money; it doesn’t require any extra classes. It simply asks you to take different classes,” said Hendrickson. “The challenge EWCAT faces is encouraging 18-year-old students to not only take a chance on the program, but asking them to take a chance on themselves. The ‘real world’ shouldn’t start the day you leave college; it should start the same day that you walk onto campus.”

Currently, there are no direct routes that students can take to register for EWCAT sections. While students who enroll in these courses do have the option to transfer to a traditional course, there has been no prior effort to recruit students to take the classes. Fair said he hopes to eventually expand the program in a way that would allow students to have the option to register for EWCAT courses at their own discretion.

“Part of the reason for this,” Fair explained, “is that we were collecting data on the impact of the EWCAT model, and we did not want to run the risk of skewing the data by recruiting students who were favorably inclined to advance to the EWCAT model.”

 

 

 

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