The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning

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 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 the Office of the Dean of the College'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 Learning Collaborative builds upon and strengthens the faculty-student partnership that is central to the Open Curriculum and undergraduate education at Brown. Through their active participation in teaching and curricular development, student Fellows simultaneously enrich their peers' learning and deepen their own understanding of the subject matter at hand.​

Dean Rashid Zia

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 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 then partner with faculty to provide personalized assistance and feedback to enrolled students, and they will receive ongoing professional development 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 also hosts a complementary initiative, bringing together faculty and graduate students to reflect on their own teaching. These initiatives 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 come together to work in course-planning teams. This creates a model of intergenerational teaching teams, where knowledge and ideas flow back and forth among faculty and students.

Currently, the University is engaged in four Learning Collaborative initiatives:

Since 1982, Brown has been a national model for its Writing Fellows program. In May 2017, Sheridan began a parallel program for faculty and graduate TAs. The Writing Initiative provides support for instructors 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.

Since Spring 2018, Sheridan has offered a course on the “Theory and Practice of Problem Solving,” to support undergraduate Problem-Solving Fellows. 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.

For faculty and Graduate TAs, Sheridan also offers a series of Problem-Solving Course Design workshops and institutes. Participants learn evidence-based practices in designing problems that promote student learning. The program begins with two lunchtime workshops on metacognition, how to embed problems in your course, and considerations for course designs that leverage problem solving as a core pedagogical tool. Participants may then apply to a one-day institute and receive a $2,000 stipend to implement their ideas during the coming academic year.

In 2018-19, Sheridan, in collaboration with the HHMI Grant, "Innovation in Gateway STEM Courses," began a new area of the Learning Collaborative, focused on Research. This area is aligned with the COEX (Collaborative, Scholarly Experiences) and supports course design that embeds research into a course. Upon successful completion of the COEX Course Design Institute, faculty participants receive an award to use for course development. 

Beginning Spring 2020, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, in collaboration with the Data Science Institute, launched a new initiative supporting the interdisciplinary practice of data science. The Data Science Fellows initiative prepares students to serve as consultants to faculty wishing to add more elements of data science to their undergraduate course. Students learn a core set of data science practices, active learning pedagogies, and collaborative communication skills. Students enrolled in the Data Science Fellows course (DATA 1150) collaborate with a participating faculty member to infuse data science tools and practice in existing undergraduate courses.

Faculty interested in adapting or modifying data science curricula are offered two options. First, the Sheridan Center will offer a data science course design institute focusing on expanding knowledge of data science education strategies, integrating data science into existing course learning outcomes, and planning course-based data science activities. Faculty meet with a Sheridan representative to brainstorm initial curricular change ideas, participate in a one-day workshop, implement the course design strategies, then meet again to share their experiences with other workshop participants. Upon successful completion of the institute, faculty participants receive an award to use for course development.

Second, faculty can request a data science fellow to collaborate with them. Priority for fellows will be given to those faculty attending the data science course design institute. The Sheridan Center will reimburse departments for the data science fellow UTA salary, up to 10 hours per week at the departmental rate.

Impact of the Learning Collaborative

The Brown Learning Collaborative expands upon Brown’s deeply held commitment to a student-directed liberal arts education and defines for students and parents the tangible benefits of such an education. Both Teaching Fellows and the students with whom they work 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.

Learning Collaborative Outcomes

Outcomes of the Brown Learning Collaborative have been published here:

  • Peter Felten and Leo Lambert. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Wright, M. C., Mandel, M. S., Metzler, J., & Smith, C. (2020). Intergenerational partnerships to support liberal learning goals. In W. Moner, P. Motley, & R. Pope-Ruark (Eds.) Redesigning liberal education: Innovative design for a twenty-first century undergraduate education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.