Faculty Focus


Creating an Authentic Learning Environment by Embracing What’s Real

“Because much of what goes on in college classrooms lacks vitality, urgency and realness, students often draw a distinction between their classroom life and the real world.” So writes biology professor Christopher Uhl. He calls his solution “steering into the curve,” which he describes as the “antidote to the deadness that pervades many college classrooms.” (p. 108) He claims it has “the power to transform classrooms from tedious, lifeless places to alive, authentic relationship-rich environments.” (p.105)

Uhl defines steering into the curve with examples. Here are a couple included in the article. It’s the first day of class. Uhl opens by sharing assessments of his course that appear on the “Rate My Professor” website. The assessments he selects are widely divergent—from best class ever to this class sucks. “I steer into the curve by acknowledging what is real in the room … on the first day of class, college students are sizing up their professors—they are shopping!” (p. 105)

Uhl’s goal on this first day is to create an atmosphere of candor and authenticity and at the same time make a distinction between observations and judgments. He builds that point by asking students to look at him and say what they see—a balding male wearing a sports coat and bowtie. And from that they tell him they suspect he’s a formal, conservative, eccentric, aging professor. He asks them to close their eyes, during which time he takes off the bowtie and sports coat and replaces them with a black leather jacket and a red bandana that he wraps around his head. And what do students see now? A laid-back, aging hippie … maybe one who smokes weed. And why are these outfits and the conclusions they prompt important? They influence decision making. Uhl then shares a different kind of assessment made by a former student. “This class is crap if you want it to be but it can be gold if you want it to be.” (p. 106)

And how would one “steer into the curve” on those days when a classroom activity goes bad? Uhl describes how once he attempted to use a guided meditation experience. He had students explore the anatomy and musculature of each other’s hands as he offered a guided visualization of the evolutionary history of the human hand. Students giggled and fidgeted but Uhl carried on even though he knew the activity was not achieving the goals he intended. He contrasts that to another classroom experience in which two students were presenting and doing poorly—his assessment confirmed by the bored, confused looks of students listening to the presentation. He decided to name the “elephant” in the room. He raised his hand and asked the presenters how they were feeling. They were confused, but after he inquired further, they admitted that doing the presentation felt like torture. It was not fun. He also got the class to acknowledge their boredom.

“It is fear that diminishes us and keeps us pretending. And, if you haven’t noticed, fear is everywhere on college campuses—in administrators, in teachers, in teaching pedagogies, in classroom layout, and in students.” (p. 108)

“For me steering into the curve is ultimately about letting go of my small-minded, fear-directed agendas and steering into the unknown, with all its risks and opportunities for transformative learning.” (p. 108)

Reference: Uhl, C. (2010). Steering into the curve: Getting real in the classroom. College Teaching, 58 (3), 105-108.

Reprinted from What’s Real in the Classroom? The Teaching Professor, 25.1 (2011): 2.