Enriching APU’s Classes by Designing for Significant Learning

by Abigail Reed

Colorful sticky notes and hand-made posters decorate the walls, groups of tables are pushed together to form faculty learning teams, and the murmur of discussion fills the room as Azusa Pacific University professors from across disciplines dive deep to transform their classrooms at the fourth annual Designing Significant Learning Experience (DSLE) institute.

Co-facilitated by Stephanie Fenwick, Ed.D., executive director of curricular and instructional effectiveness in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, and Shawna Lafreniere, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Psychology, the three-day event spearheads a movement, which reimagines Azusa Pacific classrooms and encourages educators to cultivate active and relational learning. Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink, former president of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, provides the framework for the institute. Under this guidance, APU faculty members examine and restructure course syllabi, working together to create solutions and deeper learning opportunities for their future students.

“The DSLE institute provided ways to give courses I’ve taught for 10 years new life,” said Tim Samoff, MFA, professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts. “It challenged me to evaluate course content, its delivery to students, and how the class as a whole—including me—could better engage in the material.”

Significant learning goes beyond lectures, memorization, and teaching to the test. It expands classroom education to include six dynamic pieces: learning how to learn, foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, and caring. To explore these different dimensions of learning, students and professors participate in discussions, solve problems, and devise real world applications, among other learning activities. Students of all learning styles and backgrounds can benefit in this atmosphere.

“We are preparing students for a future that we don’t know about—a future the students themselves can’t predict,” said Fenwick. “Significant learning experiences move beyond content alone and equip students with adaptability and critical thinking skills.”

To accomplish this feat, DSLE courses often adopt the “flipped classroom” model: students listen to a lecture or read materials prior to class and arrive ready to engage in discussion or activities, allowing professors to facilitate learning and provide immediate feedback. This hands-on environment allows for team-based learning, which involves strategically established learning communities, kept in check through accountability tasks.

Students of all learning styles and backgrounds can benefit in this atmosphere.

As an APU professor herself, Lafreniere’s undergraduate classroom practices integrate DSLE pedagogy and team-based learning: her students arrive to class ready to actively engage with the material in their teams, applying new knowledge to real-life scenarios and learning from each other along the way. At the beginning and end of each session, Lafreniere assigns reflective, private blog posts, allowing her to closely monitor student well-being and learning. Her graduate courses incorporate similar team-based learning strategies to capitalize on the experiences and knowledge students bring into the classroom.

“I consider teaching a sacred trust. That’s my motivation for adopting DSLE strategies—to build trust with my students and let them know I am a partner with them on their learning journey,” said Lafreniere. “It makes a transformative difference when you unapologetically care for people at a deeper level and provide a space for them to be open about their life and learning processes.”

Case in point: Brittany Bauerle, ’19. As a communication studies major, Bauerle found herself in the midst of Lafreniere’s dynamic classroom atmosphere her first semester at APU. Four years later, Bauerle is pursuing a Masters in Positive Human Resource Development at Claremont Graduate University to become an organizational consultant.

“I learned how to engage information in a group setting and comfortably teach others new concepts. I learned how to keep my mind open to the ideas of others—no single person has all the answers and everyone has something valuable to share,” said Bauerle. “I would not have considered graduate school without this experience. She teaches the way I hope to coach when I go into organizational consulting.”

As the professors who attended the DSLE institute return back to their classrooms—whether in the theater department or a biology lab—they will bring the same integrated course design that impacted Bauerle.

“My teaching skills and practices have truly been transformed. The DSLE program provided an immediate positive impact on the ways I designed, engaged, and taught my classes and the feedback from my students was inspiring,” said William James Jones, Ph.D., adjunct psychology professor. “I am grateful to the DSLE for shaping me into a much stronger professor and giving me the tools to continue to thrive in this area.”

Abigail Reed is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a liberal studies major with an honors humanities minor.