We Came, We Listened, We Participated, and We Learned
Ethnographic Study Helps Improve Future AAHE Conferences
By Amy Driscoll, Annette March, and Swarup Wood

From the November 2002 AAHEBulletin.com

Editor's Note: AAHE experimented with innovative session formats and interactive roles for both attendees and presenters at its 2002 the National Conference for Higher Education. Lessons learned from those changes will be incorporated into AAHE's new Learning to Change Conference, to be held March 14-17, 2003, in Washington, DC. The following article chronicles the ethnographic study conducted during the 2002 conference and reports on that study's preliminary findings.

For more on what AAHE learned from the innovations at the 2002 National Conference and from the results of the ethnographic study, see "What Has AAHE Learned From This First Set of Findings?" at the end of this article.

When the call for proposals for AAHE's 2002 National Conference arrived in campus mailboxes all over the country, it was immediately apparent that this would be a different conference. The 2002 Conference Planning Committee took bold steps by requiring potential presenters to describe the pedagogy they would use in their sessions and to identify the learning principles upon which their session would be designed. The intent was to set the context for an engaged learning conference and for participants to take on more active roles, to model the association's description of learning as "an ongoing, dynamic and social process."

During AAHE's final planning stages for the 2002 conference, a chance conversation between us and Barbara Cambridge, AAHE vice president, sparked the idea of studying the conference. As AAHE members, we saw the annual gathering as a time to model a kind of action research of conference teaching and learning.

AAHE responded with enthusiasm, viewing our study as an opportunity to further extend and vitalize the work of the organization. Our campus, California State University Monterey Bay, provided the support needed to attend and investigate the sessions. In this article we describe how we studied the conference and what we learned.

Study Methodology

We began by acknowledging that AAHE was indeed modeling the changes and risks being encouraged at institutions, and appropriately doing so to improve the learning quality of its conference about learning. The conference theme, "Learning in Context: Who Are Our Students? How Do They Learn?" set direction for our study design.

Our first decision was to approach the study as an ethnography - an approach that would capture the richness of the experience for participants. Ethnography is a study of a culture or community using participant/observers to gather mostly narrative data. It was a good fit for the conference context and for us as researchers.

From there, we developed questions to guide our methods of data collection. We asked:

  • What kind of pedagogy and learning theories will be described in proposals?
  • What kind of pedagogy will be used in the sessions?
  • How will attendees respond to the varied kinds of pedagogy?
  • Will attendees be aware of the changes that AAHE is making in the conference?

To answer our queries, before the conference we analyzed all of the proposals for concurrent sessions (eliminating workshops and poster sessions). During the conference we observed 21 sessions and then interviewed two or three participants from each as they left the sessions.

Preliminary Findings

The conference proved to be the kind of learning experience envisioned by AAHE planners - one of engaging sessions in which diverse participants formed bonds, participated as learners, and were integral to the learning process. Many attendees experienced sessions with interactive and innovative pedagogy. Other sessions remained true to a traditional direct-presentation style with time for questions and answers. Responses to those differences were mixed with support, concerns, enthusiasm, and insight.

At this time we can describe preliminary findings that we think our colleagues will find interesting and important. A more thorough analysis, especially with respect to insights for individual campuses, for faculty development, and for professional development in general, is in process.

Language of Learning: How Colleagues Described Their Sessions

Proposals described learning theory and pedagogy in a variety of ways. In our analysis of the 72 concurrent session proposals that were accepted for the conference we used definitions from educational psychology. Pedagogy describes teaching through the use of strategies, approaches, practices, and behaviors. Learning theory is defined as a principle that describes how and explains why learning occurs.

All 72 proposals specifically described pedagogical approaches and strategies. About half proposed the use of strategies such as lecture, presentation, discussion, question and answer, group work, and use of audiovisuals. About a third of the proposals described less common approaches such as fishbowl, charrette, jigsaw, forums, audience surveys, personal stories, interview transcript analysis, reflective writing, kiva, a guided design process, and a mock focus group.

When asked to describe the "learning principle(s)" for their sessions, or to respond to the question of "What is it you know about learning that led you to design this session in this way," colleagues responded with variation. Only 38 proposals described learning principles that guided the planning of pedagogy for their sessions. Of these, more than half of the proposals described the value of active learning and engagement for learning.

The other learning principles that appeared in many proposals were related to the importance of social interaction and context, of connecting content to life, of making content relevant and meaningful, of processing information through reflection, of collaboration, and of application.

After we read the proposals, our curiosity expanded and we looked forward to participating in and observing the sessions.

Observational Data: How Colleagues Engaged Us

A skim of the narrative data from our observations suggested that the 21 sessions we observed could be categorized into three kinds of formats:

  • Traditional sessions, mostly presentation with brief time for question and answer (8)
  • Sessions in which presentation was evenly integrated with time spent in varied interactions (5)
  • Sessions that were highly innovative and primarily interactive even in presentation (8)

The following three paragraphs describe three sessions and the kinds of innovation and interaction participants experienced in those sessions.

In session one, the three presenters engaged participants experientially in a charette, which is a pedagogy using simulation for constructing knowledge about community experience. In the course of the session we discovered not only what a charette is but also how to use it. The presenters used resources that included a website; mentors from the university campus and community; student mentors linked by phone from the university; a process mentor; a binder of resources about the charette; and a prop table including a wig, some crazy hats, stickers, candy, scarves, etc. The presenters also used small group collaboration, small group presentations, and then finished with a summary debriefing by the whole group.

In the second session, the single presenter quickly engaged us with his topic by asking about our practices for selecting a textbook. He initiated his research presentation about text selection using slides, acknowledging "this study is a work in progress," and encouraging participants to add questions to his survey, to predict additional findings, and to review the results and extend his recommendations. Each of his prompts resulted in individual contributions and group discussions for a fast-paced and compelling session.

Session three began with directions for participants to draw a picture that captured the programmatic relationships on their campuses. After a brief period, participants were asked to "ink shed" about the issues raised by their drawings. In small groups, participants shared issues and concerns and prepared and then presented a report with overheads for the whole group. Intense discussion between and within the groups began resolution of some issues as each group presented their concerns. Presenters shared insight from their experiences. The session ended with participants reflecting on "one change they would make" in their drawing and a rationale for the change.

Interview Data: How Colleagues Responded to Sessions

We interviewed two or three participants from each session for a total of 48 interviewees, randomly selected as they left the 21 sessions. Our observations provided us with a context for the interview data and its interpretation.

We began each interview checking on participant awareness of changes in the conference. We heard 35 participants (73 percent) describe awareness with words including "interactive" and "engaging" for conference formats. Many of these respondents referred to the Communities of Practice, the synthesizer role, our ethnography, and a learning focus.

They spontaneously supplied the sources of their awareness: conference program, website, and opening session introductions. The awareness we heard was typically accompanied by enthusiasm and support, including the comment: "AAHE is trying to model an engaging learning environment so that we experience what we want for our students."

We also heard concern and caution: "I'm skeptical. I think that there are some sessions that shouldn't be so interactive - sometimes you need to go and just listen and soak up new information," one attendee said. "This conference is exhausting because I have to work so hard in these sessions," said another.

We also asked "Was this session different from those you typically attend at AAHE?" Twenty participants (42 percent) responded that the sessions were not different, offering descriptions including "typical session with presentations and time for question/answer." Many of those responses were accompanied by a defense of traditional formats, including the comment "It was about a policy report so it needed to be a straight presentation."

Of the 48 interviewees, 23 (48 percent) responded that the previous session was different from the usual sessions they attend. They described pace, organization and structure, interaction, and involvement. Their descriptions included positive session evaluations and enthusiasm about participation. Comments included "I came out of the session better than I went in. It was cutting edge in a meaningful way." And "The fact that we had things to do with our hands lubricated our tongues. There was a different kind of conversation - probably closely approximating what learners in the classroom will be doing."

Amidst the comments about sessions being different were a few criticisms, including: "I still have a lot of questions and I wish I had more time to talk to them." Also, "There is a lot of time spent on diagrams and discussion - a general pooling of ignorance. I would say that we could use our time better hearing about the program and spending less time drawing pictures."

One of the responses that didn't fit into the above provided good insight for consideration: "This was cutting edge information and that's what I expect of AAHE - both content and pedagogy. I expect to leave here with new information, new perspectives, and new pedagogical ideas."

Reflections and Recommendations

Although it is too soon to go very far in recommendations, the preliminary data yield a significant issue. The diversity of session content, participants' preferences and learning styles, and the variation of presenters' pedagogical skills represent a complex issue to be addressed by AAHE and higher education in general. It is a significant faculty development issue because we hear the same variation in responses to our courses from students. Those who study pedagogy are aware of the sophistication needed to carefully match teaching and learning approaches to particular content and diverse learners. Hopefully this issue will be part of an ongoing and formative discussion among AAHE staff and AAHE members as the association explores approaches to make conferences more effective learning experiences.


Amy Driscoll is director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at California State University Monterey Bay. Contact her at amy_driscoll@csumb.edu.

Annette March is a faculty associate for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment and a lecturer in human communications at California State University Monterey Bay. Contact her at annette_march@csumb.edu.

Swarup Wood is an associate professor of earth systems, science, and policy at California State University Monterey Bay. Contact her at swarup_wood@csumb.edu.


What Has AAHE Learned From This First Set of Findings?

  • Session proposers who thought explicitly about appropriate pedagogies for their sessions chose a greater variety of strategies than in the past. AAHE will, therefore, continue in its new Learning to Change Conference to require description of and rationale for the pedagogy of the proposed session.


  • Session proposers were less able to link learning principles with pedagogies. This finding accentuates the need for AAHE's new field of inquiry and action Learning about Learning. Faculty members need to know principles of learning and apply them, including at the 2003 Learning to Change Conference.


  • Session participants appreciate recognition of their own ideas and opportunity to share ideas. Both sessions and communities of practice need to recognize this desire. The 2003 Learning to Change Conference will feature sessions that enable this cross fertilization of ideas through sessions and communities of practice, role, and identity (see Call for Proposals and Participation).

Please send ideas that you draw from this ethnographic study to AAHE's 2003 Learning to Change Conference planners via bcambridge@aahe.org. If you would be interested in undertaking an ethnographic study of the 2003 Learning to Change Conference, please call Barbara Cambridge at 202-463-1760.



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