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Building Cognitive Assemblies: An Exercise in Course Design

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Several site visits to manufacturing plants, many dinner table discussions with my automotive engineer husband, and a few monographs later, I came to realize that the automotive industry offers avaluable lesson for the educator: if you can reduce the number of parts or get one part to do several jobs, you reduce cost, time, and errors. Replacing a twenty-eight part metal assembly with a single plastic piece earns automotive workers considerable bonuses.


As a colleague of mine said, "You are not done preparing a course when you can't fit any more material into it, you are done when you can't take any more material out of it." This posting gives some excellent advice on how to do just that. It is by Carolyn G. Shapiro-Shapin, Ph.D. Grand Valley State University, and is #42 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 17, Number 5, September, 2008.© Copyright 1996-2008. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.

Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Place of Political Learning in College


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Building Cognitive Assemblies: An Exercise in Course Design


Commonly, in hallway conversations across campus, one hears the lament that there is never enough time in the semester to present material with sufficient breadth of scope and depth of detail. How can we teach content and, at the same time, help students understand how our fields operate and how these fields are evolving? How do we incorporate new findings into a semester's learning when we have already trimmed all of

the "non-essentials"? To borrow the patois of the auto industry, we have what we regard as a "lean" produc- tion and a robust design, but now we need to introduce additional information without the luxury of increased class time.

Restructuring a course can be a painful process as it involves letting go of material formerly considered

"absolutely essential" to allow room for new ideas or discussions. Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions offers guidance for revision. Kuhn noted that when scientists who were wedded to the idea that the heavens moved in perfect circles around the earth found data that did not fit, they added epicycles (little circles) to help shoehorn the new data into their old belief system. Eventually, Copernicus offered a new paradigm for understanding astronomy by wresting the earth from the center of the universe. Similarly, as professors, we too must be willing to shift the organizational paradigms of our courses, rather than simply adding epicycles.

The first courses I taught bore a close resemblance to those I had taken as a student. Discussions with

colleagues in seminars and around the coffee pot helped me sharpen and recast problematic lectures.

Further research, along with student questions and suggestions, proved invaluable in filling the gaps in my lectures. As I continued to add information to my lectures, three things occurred: I began talking faster; new

material crowded out student participation; and the structure of the lectures started to bend under the

weight of the marginalia. With fields of study continuously evolving, these questions arise: how do we

revise our course structure and where do we turn for guidance in this process?

A range of experiences, inside and outside of academia, both serendipitous and planned, has proved instrumental in helping me shift my teaching paradigms. Such encounters have underscored the value of developing new cognitive assemblies, reevaluating disciplinary boundaries, connecting with new audiences, and engaging multiple senses in the process of course revision.

Forming Cognitive Assemblies

Several site visits to manufacturing plants, many dinner table discussions with my automotive engineer husband, and a few monographs later, I came to realize that the automotive industry offers a

valuable lesson for the educator: if you can reduce the number of parts or get one part to do several jobs, you reduce cost, time, and errors. Replacing a twenty-eight part metal assembly with a single plastic piece earns automotive workers considerable bonuses.

Similarly, in teaching, we can introduce cognitive assemblies of methods, questions, and content that link the diverse topics we wish to cover early in the course and weave them through the term's lectures. The students develop a robust scaffolding to which they can affix the course material, and time is saved as the class can refer back to the cognitive assembly without a full reintroduction of earlier material. Several years ago, for example, I replaced my "History of Medicine" syllabus of 42 chronologically-arranged topics with a

syllabus structured around five epidemics, each of which offers an entry point into studying the medical

marketplace, theories, and practices of its era.

The strategy of building cognitive assemblies also proves effective at the micro- level. In my "United States

Since 1877" survey, I drew together material from individual classes on imperialism, immigration, Native Americans, and African Americans to craft two lectures that examine late-nineteenth-century American- ization efforts at home and abroad. These new lectures are better focused than those they replaced,

have less extraneous detail, evoke thoughtful comparative analysis from students, and allow additional

time for post-World War II topics.

Challenging Traditional Structures and Boundaries

As automotive manufacturers periodically redesign vehicles, professors have an opportunity each semester to rearrange, rework, and challenge their courses' components. Pondering, sometimes erasing, the boundaries

within and between disciplines, and looking for new connections become integral to this process.

Asking my students to consider how we divide historical eras results in interesting discussions that help

them consider the ways in which scholarly choices determine the narratives students learn. Universities divide the United States surveys in one of two places: the end of the Civil War in 1865 or the end of Reconstruction in 1877. I open my United States survey by asking students to explore the different visions of American history produced by shifting the dividing line from 1865 to 1877. The first, I argue, offers a vision of Northern victory and freed slaves; the latter, a set of questions about the meaning of the Northern victory in light of the failures of Reconstruction.

Peering across the Civil War dividing line, for example, makes clearer the continuity of ideas and families that linked the nineteenth-century Seneca Falls women with the next generation of reformers dedicated both to women's rights and social change. When these materials are presented together, the students achieve a more coherent understanding of the women's movement. Similarly, in general education classes, I ask students what separates biochemistry from organic chemistry; social psychology from sociology; and economics from

business. We then discuss the possibilities for creative scholarship that result from research that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

Teaching (and Learning from) Different Audiences

Automotive manufacturers pay close attention to the questions and concerns of consumers. In a like fashion, audience responses offer the professor guidance on whether or where a new approach to a topic is needed. When I played the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) song "The Preacher and the Slave" for my history class, the students started singing along. Their words were not those in the IWW's Little Red Songbook; rather, they were singing the hymn "In the Sweet By and By." A discussion followed in which the class examined why an anti-Christian union would appropriate Christian hymns to convey its message. Two lessons emerged from this experience. First, examining the medium in which historical actors conveyed

their messages gave students a productive means of gaining access to the worldview of these actors. Second, shifting the background (in this case religion) to the foreground revealed powerful tropes for organizing a

section of a course. Indeed, the language and hymns of nineteenth-century Protestantism permeate the writings and songs of labor unions, the temperance movement, public health initiatives, and imperialist ventures.

The boiling down, supplementing, and recasting inherent in tailoring college lectures for community audiences often makes clear new connections that I can bring back to my college students. The learning is a two-way street. Senior Scholars attending my lectures on Harry Truman and second graders discussing the history of polio shared personal stories and observations that I now use to illustrate my college lectures.

Engaging the Senses

Engaging the diverse senses in the learning process allows students with different learning styles to "test

drive" and thereby better understand the subject matter. Much of historical inquiry, for example, seeks to recreate the choreography of the past: Who was on the stage? How close did they stand to one another? What roles did body language, spoken language, and clothing play in communication and ultimately in power dynamics? National historical parks offer one means of understanding this historical choreography. Walking

the grounds with re-enactors at Gettysburg in the July heat, for example, can make clearer in a multi-sensory way the overconfidence that led General Lee to order the futile attack now known as Pickett's charge. Analysis of historical staging through primary source documents also provides an organizing platform for student discussions of the encounters between immigrants and native born; colonizers and colonized; doctors and patients. Similarly, studying the physical circumstances in which engineers design bridges, archaeologists work on a dig, or political leaders write treaties may elucidate how those involved drew conclusions and evaluated their results. Finally, a focus on the physical aspects of learning suggests a wide range of classroom

exercises. When students pull insights out of the texts in classroom discussions, re-enact debates, or recreate scientific experiments, they become active learners.

As teachers we are always learning. When we integrate the most recent literature from our disciplines into our classes, we must also be open to allowing life experiences to shape and reshape our understanding of our subjects. Examining the construction, arrangement, and presentation of our courses' components provides

myriad opportunities for increasing our own understanding and drawing new connections. And, as our courses become more efficient, we can, perhaps, even sneak in a bit more material.

Contact: Carolyn G. Shapiro-Shapin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI 49401 E-mail: