Collaborations in Teaching and Learning: A Transformative Experience

by Lenin Grajo, Assistant Professor, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

In the Fall semester of 2013, I started having conversations about an international teaching and learning collaboration with a colleague and mentor of mine from the Department of Occupational Therapy in the University of the Philippines in Manila (UPM) for implementation in the fall of the following year.  The goal was simple: provide opportunities for students to learn about the influence of culture in the study of occupational science. Now, after two years of implementing this collaboration, I realize the outcomes not only transformed my students’ view of themselves as people who actively engage in daily meaningful activities (called occupations in my field), but also transformed the way I teach and measure my teaching practices.

In a recent editorial for a special issue on Global Partnerships for the Occupational Therapy International journal, Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar and colleagues (2015) highlighted how international collaborations in occupational therapy curricula can help transform student learning. Using Mezirow’s transformational learning theory (1997) as a main premise, Balcazar-Suarez and colleagues discussed how students are able to examine and reflect on their own belief systems, behaviors and understanding of themselves through meaningful and guided interactions with international peers during an educational collaboration.

My involvement with the Reiner Center as a 2015 Faculty Fellow provides me a unique chance to survey faculty at Saint Louis University (SLU) about other existing international teaching and learning collaborations. My goal for this project is to share information and promote more teaching and learning collaborations within programs at SLU.  In this reflection post, I would like to broaden Balcazar-Suarez and colleagues’ discussions, share my personal perspectives and emphasize how teaching and learning collaborations can not only transform student learning but transform how educators examine their teaching practices, deliver learning material and measure effectiveness of the teaching and learning process in various courses and programs.  Below, I share three main perspectives.

I.  Planning a teaching and learning collaboration allows opportunities to re-examine and critically reflect on our teaching philosophies and approaches.

After two years of teaching the same course in our undergraduate program, I decided it is time to enrich the learning opportunities offered through the course by thinking of opportunities for a teaching and learning collaboration.  I reached out to my mentor and colleague in the University of the Philippines.  The process involved a redesign for both the SLU and UPM courses.  The collaboration provided opportunities for me and my collaborator to examine the way we teach our courses, how we can seamlessly bridge the objectives of the collaboration with our course objectives, and how our individual teaching approaches can be enhanced and used optimally in the collaboration.

II. Conversations with collaborating peers provide rich discussions about content expertise, current best and effective practices, and new ways of thinking and knowing. Collaborations can also help make educators more creative when thinking about how to measure outcomes of the teaching and learning process.

Several emails and Skype meetings provided my collaborator and I many opportunities to share our teaching practices, how we measure student learning outcomes, and reciprocal and continued mentorship.  The process allowed us to develop creative ways of delivering content (my collaborator and I thought of multiple ways to deliver presentations in live and recorded formats to account for internet connection challenges and geographical time difference), ways to bridge two different curricula of occupational science and occupational therapy programs (the SLU OT program is a master’s program with an undergraduate occupational science program and the UPM program is a bachelor’s in OT program), and various ways to measure the effectiveness of the collaboration in achieving learning outcomes (we developed enhanced analysis and reflection assignments and a mixed-method survey to measure impacts of the activity).

III. Teaching and learning collaborations provide great means for educators to contextualize learning materials, bridging the gap between classroom-based learning and practical learning.

The courses I teach provide me constant means to reflect on how I can scaffold learning of very theoretical concepts to real life applications.  Being in the health professions, students always ask how concepts learned in class can help them pass their certification exam and how they can be used in clinical practice.  When developing the teaching and learning collaboration, I had to be very cognizant of these student expectations and make sure that this new teaching and learning activity is not just a filler activity, busy work, or something that students will just forget after the course run has finished.  The process and the collaboration provided real opportunities for me and my students to discuss similarities and differences in perspectives and practices in the way people perform daily activities.  This is very similar to how my students might encounter clients in the future who will share very different opinions, beliefs, and cultural practices from their own.  Being an educator born and raised with a culture very different from that of my students, I have learned the value of being uncomfortable with differences.  These moments of discomfort, however, provide great teachable moments and reflection points that students always appreciate.

Developing and implementing an international teaching and learning collaboration has made a significant impact in my life as an educator.  Collaborations do not have to be big and international.  Educators can survey existing community-based programs and resources that can be utilized for teaching and learning purposes.  Collaborations can also be within programs, departments or colleges.  I encourage you to reflect on the courses that you currently teach and think of ways you can bring in meaningful teaching and learning collaborations from various resources available to you and your learning community.

 

References

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74): 5–12.

Suaraz-Balcazar, Y., Hammel, J., Mayo, L., Inwald, S. & Sen, S. (2013). Innovation in global collaborations: From student placement to mutually beneficial exchanges. Occupational Therapy International, 20, 94-101. doi: 10.1002/oti.1341

 

The Author

Grajo pic (2)Lenin Grajo, PhD, EdM, OTR is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Doisy College of Health Sciences.  He is the recipient of the 2015 Outstanding Educator Award of the Missouri Occupational Therapy Association, and currently the Mary L. Stephen Faculty Fellow for Scholarly Teaching at the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.  He is also the Professional Development Coordinator of the Education Special Interest Section of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

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