Graduate Student Helps USC Undergrads Connect to Class

Ben Heddy

By Andrea Bennett

USC Rossier School of Education Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Heddy knows students learn best when they are emotionally connected to the material. And he is exploring how a teaching model he created can activate this experience in one USC undergraduate study skills class.

Assistant Professor Helena Seli teaches a course to help students learn, study, and manage their time more effectively. She wanted the material to be more relatable and personal for her students, and hoped they would better understand the value of the coursework and not view it as remedial or unnecessary.

Heddy was developing a model to teach for transformative experience for his own doctoral research when he heard of Seli’s plight, and suspected the missing ingredient might be emotion. He offered to use his model to connect students emotionally to what they learned, with the hope that they would do better academically as a result.

“Any emotion you get is a physical arousal, but it’s up to you to interpret and label the emotion,” Heddy said. “Enjoyment makes people engaged whereas anxiety makes people lose focus, so it’s important for kids to come into class with positive and not negative emotions to facilitate learning.”

He taught the TAs how to apply his model, called “Teaching for Transformative Experience,” in half of the labs in the 85-student class. Originally created for teaching K-12 science, the model was modified for non-science college subjects.

Results of the research have been remarkable so far.

Data indicate that Heddy’s model facilitated significantly more transformative experiences among students in the study skills class. Students had greater positive academic emotions and less boredom, higher levels of interest in the material, and much higher levels of achievement than a control group within the same class.

He also found that the students who had a transformative experience remembered the material much better in a delayed test several weeks later.

“If you just learn one concept alone without any connections to experience, it’s difficult to recall that concept later,” he said. “Students in transformative experience did not forget because it is connected to their experience and knowledge framework.”

Seli said she has observed the impact firsthand: “I noticed significant differences in how interesting, important and relevant students between the experimental and control condition found the material taught to be.”

Heddy, who is focusing his dissertation on how interest develops over time, said he plans to apply the model to the entire class this fall, and hopefully, similar courses across USC.

He also wants to use the strategy in urban K-12 schools.

“A lot of times, teachers don’t have experiences that relate to their students because they’re not from an urban experience themselves,” he said. “The goal is to influence children in urban settings, and transformative experience can connect with students and facilitate interest in the material.”

Findings from Heddy’s work in the USC class will be submitted to the Journal of College Teaching.

Professor Gale Sinatra, Heddy’s dissertation chair, said the project was “cool on many levels.”

“A graduate student saw a problem and thought he could do something about it, and he initiated a research project to see that it actually worked,” she said. “The students have benefitted, and we got great results.”

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