Kulmala dubbed Teagle scholar, charged with helping education evolve

Technology plays an important role in higher education, and with the evolution of technology, education must adapt to fully utilize the advances. At Fort Hays State University, Dr. Dan Kulmala, associate professor of English, has taken on this charge as he was recently dubbed a Teagle Foundation Teaching and Learning Scholar.

The designation gives Kulmala the opportunity to receive training about Collegiate Learning Assessment in the Classroom. CLA in the Classroom focuses on issues of teaching and learning and uses assessment, performance tasks and rubrics.

"They call it a 'critical thinking tank,'" said Kulmala. "As a group, we [the scholars] will work with the Council for Aid to Education to come up with new ideas and strategies to better educate students."

"The Collegiate Learning Assessment is a national effort that provides colleges and universities with information about their students' performance on tasks that require them to think critically, reason analytically, solve realistic problems and write clearly," said Richard Hersh, co-director of the CLA project.
"Performance tasks are authentic learning," said Kulmala. "They take the information normally contained in a test or other boring task and put it into a different, more engaging activity."

For example, instead of normal, boring memorization, Kulmala had one of his classes create a "wiki" of literary terms.

"They not only had to define them," he said, "but I had them provide an example, show connections to other literary terms and demonstrate how the term resonates with them in today's society."

This kind of creative, interactive learning really gets students' attention.

"Even though I'm on sabbatical this year, I've had students come up to me in the hall and tell me they really prefer my method of teaching," he said.

"Dan is a think out-of-the-box kind of guy," said Cindy Elliott, assistant provost for strategic partnerships and dean of distance learning. "He has really pushed this university to look for new ways to assess students' ability, new ways to teach students and new ways of engaging students in the learning process."

Along with training opportunities, the designation of Teaching and Learning Scholar gives Kulmala the responsibility for leading regional and national CLA in the Classroom workshops.

The benefits of CLA in the Classroom don't stop with the student. Teachers reap a unique reward.  Mehran Shahidi, director of English as a second language at FHSU, found that out first-hand when he used CLA techniques to teach English to a class in China.

"Traditional assessments are too simple," said Shahidi. "It's just teach, ask and then check results, with minimal teacher and learner involvement. CLA allows instructors to get constant performance updates from their students."

"This lets teachers modify the learning objectives to meet the needs of the class and to make changes to the curriculum for future classes," he said.

An additional benefit of constant performance updates, Shahidi said, is that when students know they are being monitored, they strive to improve and meet the instructor's standards.

But like any system, CLA in the Classroom is useless unless it catches on and people actually use it.

"People need to believe in the system for it to work," said Shahidi. "It's always hard to introduce a new way of doing things because some people don't want new things, but I think Dan is up the challenge."

For more information about the CLA initiative, visit the website at http://www.collegiatelearningassessment.org/

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