Turning the tables on professors. Faculty `master learners' join students

Roy Starling usually teaches at Rollins College, a small liberal arts school situated in this lake-studded suburb of Orlando, Fla. This spring term, however, the tables are turned on Dr. Starling. He's a student, taking courses in history, science, and religion. His weekends are spent trying to plow through nearly impossible reading assignments, just like any other conscientious undergrad.

The slightly built, bearded young English professor's official title for the next few months is ``master learner.'' His close associates over that time will be seven freshmen and sophomores. They'll take the same classes as he takes and join in a weekly seminar. All will contribute to a group journal, recording thoughts and problems. They may even sustain a breakfast club for the 14-week term.

Together, the seven students and one professor-turned-student constitute a small, close Community of Learners -- which is, in fact, the name of an ongoing program at Rollins.

The primary goal of Community of Learners (COL), explains Starling, is ``to expose freshmen and sophomores to a collaborative learning experience.'' It ``creates a community in which you can share insights,'' he continues. Under the COL plan, the master learner-professor melds a schedule of courses that revolve around a unifying theme. Starling's somewhat eerie-sounding theme is ``Frankenstein -- technology and humanity, purpose and dignity.''

He and his small corps of fellow students can anticipate becoming immersed in the issues of science and religion, says Starling -- such things as ``creation myths vs. the astrophysicist's view of creation.''

Central to the program is the intellectual task of making connections across disciplinary lines -- ``the exhilaration of seeing subject matter coming together,'' as Starling puts it.

The COL concept isn't unique to Rollins. It was developed in the mid-'70s by Patrick Hill, then a teacher at State University of New York at Stony Brook. The current head of the Stony Brook program, Federated Learning Communities, is James B. McKenna. On his campus, learning communities are celebrating their 10th anniversary; about 40 students participate each term. Dr. McKenna says slightly over a dozen other schools have adopted the idea so far.

COL has been a feature at Rollins since 1983. Students volunteer for the program, and ``master learners'' are chosen by a faculty committee. Ideally, the spirit of community truly blooms within the group of learners, with the faculty participant becoming one among equals. Since this term is young yet, ``they're still calling me `Dr. Starling,' '' says the current master learner.

There have been times when he's been tempted to take charge and say, ``these are the guidelines for the seminar.'' But ``I resist that; I just won't do it,'' he asserts. The whole idea, after all, is to give students some sense of mastery over the learning process.

Students who have been through the program usually praise it as a groundbreaking experience -- an in-depth education in learning. But rewards for participating faculty members are, if anything, greater, says Starling. One quickly starts ``thinking of ways to change your own teaching,'' he says. Some of the pitfalls of teaching stand out boldly. For example, the ``arrogance'' of thinking of students as ``my class'' before any real rapport has been established. Or the danger of not being attentive to ``body language'' -- squirms and yawns -- that indicate the pacing of a class needs adjustment.

``You learn something about teaching almost every minute,'' says Starling. ``Anyone who really loves the teaching profession would benefit from this program.''

He's also rapidly gaining a renewed respect for the workload undergraduates are sometimes asked to shoulder. His feelings, however, are mixed. He fully understands a professor's desire to give a lot of assignments in order to cover important ground. But when does mountainous homework begin to work against learning?

``For me, I need a little space to have a positive learning experience. I want to give a new idea some time to mature in thought,'' he admits. Being a bit more selective in reading assignments is ``something I'll really work on,'' he says.

Currently Rollins has one COL program per term, which usually attracts around a dozen students. Starling would like to see the program expand, but realizes there are hurdles to that, not the least of which is the expense to the college of allowing a faculty member to go for 16 weeks without teaching.

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