February 5, 2024

‘Purdue Pursuits’: Teaching and learning reading groups

Juanita Crider is always willing to think outside the box — especially when it comes to teaching. One of her top priorities is gaining and implementing new knowledge and practices to propel student success, and thanks to insights gathered from Purdue’s teaching and learning reading groups, her classroom is now more dynamic than ever.

Offered by the Teaching Academy and the Center for Instructional Excellence since spring 2017, the teaching and learning reading groups bring together instructors from a wide variety of academic disciplines in an environment where they can engage in candid conversations about teaching concepts, theories and methods that could benefit their students.

The groups allow teaching professionals to continually foster connections with each other — an alternative to a traditional professional development opportunity, which has start and end dates. Each semester, a book is selected and divided into three sections that are read and discussed by participants over the course of three 90-minute meetings, with the choice to attend virtually or in person.

Outside of her primary role as the assistant director of the Black Cultural Center, Crider teaches courses in the university’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. At first, Crider adopted a traditional approach to teaching, leaning heavily on micro lectures and PowerPoint presentations to convey critical information to students. Using advice offered by her colleagues and principles outlined in the books read by the groups, she slowly shifted her teaching style, transforming her classroom into an environment that promotes creativity, critical thinking and self-reflection.

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“Students engage better — and I learned this in the reading groups — when they can take something that interests them and show it in a nontraditional way that showcases their talents or interests,” Crider says.

Today, her courses are structured to include more low-stakes assignments versus high-stakes exams or projects. Instead of only assigning chapters to read at home, she sometimes divides the readings into sections, giving students the opportunity to complete them as a group in class and share their takeaways. Rather than writing traditional literary analyses, students craft a letter to one of the book’s characters or create a diary entry from the character’s perspective. And in place of long essays, Crider has introduced her unessay assignment — a chance for students to share what they’ve learned through alternative mediums like cooking, cross-stitching, poetry, songwriting, filmmaking, painting and more.

“I will never go back to a traditional exam because of the results that I get from these practices,” Crider says. “In my mind, these different types of projects I give them is my way of scaffolding them and helping them build confidence to be creative.”

This spring, the reading group will be discussing “Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education.” Daniel Guberman, assistant director for inclusive pedagogy in the Center for Instructional Excellence, says this semester’s meetings will provide opportunities to discuss new models for assessment structures, simultaneously serving as outlets for valuable guidance and honest feedback.

“We often stay on the topic of the book, but other times, it’s a space for people who have a specific thing that’s going on in their class they’d like feedback on,” Guberman says. “But we also get an opportunity to share and provide mutual guidance and advice with each other.”

The ideas discussed in this collaborative environment haven’t only motivated Crider — they’ve inspired her. Just as she aims to build up her students’ confidence through unique and thought-provoking assignments, these groups give her the encouragement she needs to continue growing as an instructor.

“I don’t feel obligated to try everything we discuss,” Crider says. “But I want to build my arsenal of tools for instruction, and this gives me that opportunity. Being able to hear from tenured faculty and get encouragement or get ideas from them is really helpful, and hearing them respect what I have to say and value my contributions to the group helps build my confidence as an instructor.”

This semester, seven of her prior students are enrolled in the course she’s currently teaching. It’s a high compliment to Crider, who is simply glad she can help contribute to students’ interest in her areas of study. 

Currently wrapping up the requirements for a PhD in Purdue’s American Studies program, Crider says she’s grateful to have access to these fulfilling opportunities as she looks toward her future at Purdue.

“I love teaching in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, and I could teach in American Studies too,” Crider says. “I am fortunate to be at Purdue, where we have these various opportunities outside of our particular academic disciplines to learn how to teach and enhance our teaching skills.”

How you can participate

Instructors interested in participating in the spring 2024 teaching and learning reading groups can fill out an online questionnaire through Friday, Feb. 9, to provide information about themselves and their availability.

Participants can choose to meet in person at the Black Cultural Center on Thursdays from 2-3:30 p.m. or virtually on Fridays from noon-1:30 p.m. For a list of this semester’s meeting dates, visit the Innovative Learning website.

Questions or suggestions for future books and topics can be directed to Daniel Guberman at dguberman@purdue.edu.

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