Never Standing Still: Innovating for Today’s Students

Spring 2019 Issue

Paper airplanes swoop through an Apfelbaum hall classroom one fall day in 2018. A passer-by might think a spontaneous airplane battle has broken out. Instead, students in the macroeconomics class of professor Olu Onafowora are learning about absolute advantage—how resources help determine a country’s exports.

In this case, the resource is paper. Representing two countries, one group of students makes paper balls and the other folds paper airplanes. At the end, they negotiate a trade of their products.

“We learned about competition and specialization on a hands-on level rather than just out of the textbook. That was probably my favorite lesson,” says Hannah O’Hara ’22, a luxury brand management and marketing major.

“It’s something they are going to remember,” Onafowora adds. “We already went through the theory, but now they’re putting it into practice and reinforcing what’s been taught.”

Onafowora isn’t the only professor at Susquehanna finding new ways to engage students. As a new generation enters college—with a different way of learning than millennials and other generations that came before—Susquehanna is responding with innovative curriculum changes, teaching methods, living spaces and more.

“I have won awards for my teaching, and I don’t think the way I used to teach is good enough anymore. Students are different even from five years ago,” says Matthew Rousu, professor of economics and dean of the Sigmund Weis School of Business.

Dave Ramsaran, associate provost of institutional effectiveness and student and faculty development, is keeping close tabs on the educational needs of this generation.

“Learning styles are very different than the traditional lecture style. The majority of these students have operated only in the digital age, including all of their learning from kindergarten to high school,” Ramsaran says of the generation known as iGen or Generation Z.

“We have to respond with swiftness and mobility, and we can’t just keep doing it as we’ve always done. Not everything we try will work, but we still need to try.”

Ramsaran and other Susquehanna leaders have looked for guidance from many resources, including iGen by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. It’s one of the first books to look closely at the generation born after the mid-1990s. Research on iGen—the youngest of whom are still in elementary school—is far from complete. But it can’t be disputed that, for better or worse, this is the first generation to grow up entirely in the era of smartphones, spending twice as much time online as teenagers a decade ago.

The curriculum needs to allow people to start at different places and end up at the same place.


Olu Onafowora teaching in class

Leveling the Playing Field

One of Susquehanna’s newest endeavors—and the reason Onafowora has incorporated paper airplanes into his curriculum—is already showing promise. The economics department is taking the unique approach of having its faculty collaborate on an inclusive teaching initiative across all sections of an introductory economics class.

Inclusive teaching incorporates practices to support accessible learning for all students. That means not only active learning but also strategies outside the classroom to create a supportive learning community. While academic standards remain the same, experimenting with new methods helps to reach all types of learners at different levels of readiness.

“The higher education model assumes that we just pour more onto a high school education foundation, but the unevenness of that experience means they don’t all start at the same place. The curriculum needs to allow people to start at different places and end up at the same place,” Ramsaran says.

“There’s a lot of research showing that working in teams, even on analytical subjects, can be enormously beneficial,” says Rousu. “When you have teams, a student isn’t going to get stuck for an hour on an algebra mistake. In a group, they might struggle for five minutes and be able to get past that together.”

Students in introductory economics classes are now required to attend tutoring once a week. While they don’t need to engage with a tutor, they need to be present. Regular tutoring can help students through these make-or-break courses that many business majors, including O’Hara, find challenging. She credits tutoring with helping her maintain high grades in the class because she always knew where to turn with questions.

While it’s too soon to tell if inclusive teaching will result in better grades—Onafowora is still crunching that data—he saw that studying together changed the classroom environment. His students were looser and livelier, willing to go out on a limb to try to answer a question. The tutors reported the same thing about the nightly study sessions.

According to Twenge, members of iGen are sometimes hesitant to speak out and open themselves up to potential criticism—thanks to the often harsh nature of the social media they’ve been raised with. Teenage social life today is lived out mainly online for everyone to see, but being part of a familiar group, like a study group, provides a safety net.


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