Brown Learning Collaborative

Brown University has long held a reputation for innovative undergraduate education. Its Open Curriculum emphasizes critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and engagement with the world through a mixture of rigorous academic study and community service. We believe that in today’s global marketplace, the firm grounding in the liberal arts and sciences that Brown provides is the ideal foundation for long-term success.

The Brown Learning Collaborative, a collaboration between the Dean of the College and the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, is a cornerstone of these efforts. The idea draws upon research that suggests that peer-to-peer instruction dramatically improves student performance and retention. It also draws upon Dean Maud S. Mandel’s emphasis on providing curriculum-based educational support programs that help students achieve new levels of excellence in six key skills traditionally honed in a liberal arts education ­– critical reading, writing, research, data analysis, problem solving, and oral communication.

The Structure of the Learning Collaborative

The Brown Learning Collaborative will scale up peer-to-peer teaching and learning, building on the success of Brown’s renowned Writing Fellows Program. Students who apply to be Fellows will take a course, developed by the Sheridan Center, in which they will learn the theory and practice of teaching and learning in one or more of the six core skills. Fellows will then partner with faculty to provide personalized instruction to enrolled students, and they will receive ongoing feedback and support from Sheridan. The Fellows will work in a range of courses across the curriculum, from the life and physical sciences to the humanities and social sciences.

The Collaborative will also host a complementary initiative, bringing together faculty and graduate students to reflect on their own teaching. These initiatives will focus on evidence-based course re-design around the same core skills, and also address how best to leverage the participation of the peer educators in their own courses. Periodically, the communities of faculty, TAs, and undergraduates will come together to work in course-planning teams. This will create an intergenerational educational model, where knowledge and ideas flow back and forth among faculty and students.

Currently, the University is engaged in two Learning Collaborative pilots:

(1) Writing: In May 2017, Sheridan began a new year-long course design program for faculty. The Writing Across the Curriculum Seminar provides support for faculty to (re)design, develop, and teach a course that supports writing in their discipline. The program combines a Sheridan seminar on writing pedagogy and course design with a supportive peer community, individual consultation and feedback, and an opportunity to share course and student successes. Seminar size is limited to allow for hands-on opportunities, individual support, and the development of a teaching and learning community. Participants may choose to co-design a course with a graduate or undergraduate student, or an undergraduate writing fellow. This initiative complements the Writing Fellows, a renowned peer-to-peer program.

(2) Problem Solving: In Spring 2018, Sheridan will offer a new course on the “Theory and Practice of Problem Solving,” to support undergraduate Problem-Solving Fellows. It will also offer a complementary initiative. This pilot builds on the promising work of two large STEM grants at Brown, funded by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), to develop problem-solving sections facilitated by undergraduates. Results from the AAU project demonstrated that participation in these sections increased the students' course achievement in applied mathematics, chemistry, engineering, and physics, while findings from the HHMI project demonstrated gains in course content knowledge and self-assessment of learning in chemistry and genetics. 

Impact of the Learning Collaborative

The Brown Learning Collaborative will expand upon Brown’s deeply held commitment to a student-directed liberal arts education, and define for students and parents the tangible benefits of such an education. Both Teaching Fellows and the students with whom they work collaboratively will come to see skill development as a continuum and be better able to delineate how proficiency in each area will help them become flexible, agile learners with skills to succeed professionally. 

Further, in enhancing professional development for faculty and graduate students, the Learning Collaborative will build stronger bridges between undergraduates and those from whom they learn. It will also allow Brown to leverage all tiers of expertise in future curricular planning, ensuring that each course is successful in giving undergraduates the knowledge and training they need to pursue their professional goals.