UNCG Campus Weekly

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Innovations in teaching: Murphy integrates undergraduate research skills into coursework

120716feature_teachingnnovationTeaching research methods in the classroom is not easy. Neither is engaging students in material that seems not to relate to their biggest interests. An associate professor of classical studies, Dr. Joanne Murphy has been revamping her classes in order to address both challenges. As last year’s Provost’s Teaching Fellow for Undergraduate Research, and the Undergraduate Teaching Fellow for this year and 2014, Murphy has had the opportunity to design new curriculum for several of her courses, re-visioning how students will interact with the course material.

In previous years, guided undergraduate research has been available to undergraduate students mainly through Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creativity Office (URSCO) assistantships and through private tutorials, or, independent studies. URSCO’s ongoing campus-wide initiative seeks to introduce a greater number of students to research methods. Professors such as Murphy are moving toward that goal by integrating undergraduate research skills development into coursework. Now, in the courses with the revamped research skills-integrated curriculum, 140 students can build research skills, and Murphy says, without overtaxing the instructor.

How does she do this? For starters, she doesn’t use a catalogue of academic labels to describe what they’re doing. Instead, she begins by simply asking them, “What are you interested in?”  and “What kind of question would you like to ask about that?” With Murphy’s guidance, students relate their strongest interests to the class material. Students majoring in peace and conflict studies, kinesiology and cosmetology, to name a few, have discovered the depth of their own interests and how it relates to the ancient world.

In a course such as Mythology of Ancient Greece, Murphy provides selected readings for students, so that they may engage in close readings. Within the closed contexts of the selected readings, the students use the data in front of them to inform their work, especially their individual research interests. This is part of what she calls the “scaffolded guidance,” which leads them to be successful in undertaking their own research at a later point. As students absorb the readings, Murphy guides them in manageable steps through an inquiry process, argument-building and supporting an argument with textual evidence, increasing their information literacy.

In some upper-level classes, such as Archaeology of Death, she also provides opportunities for peer review and for discussing research aloud. Peer review not only spurs many valuable discussions, but it also helps them learn how to relate to one another as scholars in a respectful and productive manner. She also shares news of her own research accomplishments and challenges with the students. She has found that if students know that their instructor, an accomplished scholar, has obstacles to overcome, they become more patient with themselves and their own work, and their perseverance grows.

With the new curriculum, students are developing research skills more quickly than before, and becoming more positively engaged in the class material and in their own explorations of it.

Murphy says of her students’ experiences with developing research skills, “It really pushes them to be innovative, independent, confident critical thinkers, critical readers who can express and disseminate the information they have discovered. And we want to make that available to everybody.”

Earlier this semester, Murphy led a talk about her integration of research into curriculum at the University Teaching and Learning Commons. She has embedded research skill development into her class on sports in ancient societies course and her mythology course. In the spring, she will bring the new approach to her course in Egyptian art and archaeology.

The Office of the Provost is currently soliciting cross/multi/interdisciplinary research and creative activity proposals tied to the thematic areas of focus in the UNCG strategic plan: health and well-being, vibrant communities, and global connections. Faculty are being asked to review those three themes in the University Plan and consider responding to one of the three RFPs available to provide seed funding for teaching innovations or research tied to the Strategic Plan. Proposals are due by December 9. Visit here for more information.

By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photograph by Martin W. Kane of Murphy in classroom, Fall 2016.