Queen's University

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Sharing her passion through active learning: Annie Riel

[Annie Riel]We live in a world where we are inundated with information. Glued to multiple screens, with the answers to our most pressing questions and curiosities just a simple click away, we no longer seek and consume information the way we used to. The Internet has brought information to one’s fingertips, more rapidly and widely accessible than ever before.

Countless studies have demonstrated the behavioural implications that this technological shift has had on the average person, especially on attention span. The current generation of post-secondary students, many of whom have never known anything but high speed broadband and public Wi-Fi access, now process and therefore expect information to be delivered differently than what has been the norm.

The question then arises – how does one effectively teach this incoming generation? Annie Riel, PhD candidate in the Department of French Studies, is actively seeking the answer. Currently in her fourth year under the joint supervision of Professors Catherine Dhavernas in the Department of French Studies and Denise Stockley in the Faculty of Education, Riel is studying the effects of active learning and the impact of physical space on teaching and learning as part of her hybrid dissertation.

Encompassing several models of instruction, active learning strategies engage students in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. “Instead of passively listening, they must read, write, discuss and solve problems,” Riel explains. “I strongly believe in active learning as a method to keep students engaged. I work on creating and adapting teaching strategies, which, unlike previous models, also incorporate the effect of physical space, so that educators can more effectively use them.”

It was in her graduate studies that Riel’s interest in education became a passion. Having always been an avid reader with a deep interest in classic literature, Riel naturally enrolled in literary studies at l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). “Throughout my studies at UQAM, I was extremely stimulated by my work. It was in my master’s program there that I was inspired by two truly gifted professors. The way they taught brought the works we studied to life. That’s when I realized I wanted to bring that same level of discussion and student engagement to classrooms everywhere.”

Now at Queen’s, Riel is seamlessly combining her first love, literary studies, with pedagogical research. In her unique hybrid dissertation, she examines the intersections between literature, music and cinema – as well as learning – in the works of four prominent French authors who have had a significant influence on the second half of the twentieth century: Marguerite Duras, Pascal Quignard, Louis-René des Forêts, and Nancy Huston.

These authors, unlike those before them, were conscious of the limitations of portrayal via the written word and chose to integrate other forms of the arts in their writing, namely music. Music helped the authors not only establish an atmosphere for each scene but also evoke feelings in the reader with regards to a certain character or situation. Following the completion of their revolutionary works, much subsequent literature was inspired to enhance depth by this mode of intertextuality. In Riel’s dissertation, the works of these four authors also serve as case studies for the implementation of active learning strategies in the classroom.

[Ellis Hall Active Learning Classroom]“Much of my primary research has been completed in the new Ellis Hall active learning classrooms. These classrooms have been specifically designed to facilitate student-centered interactions while taking into account the impact of space on learning.” The presence of collaborative workstations, mobile tables and chairs, and technology all promote and encourage interactions between members of the classroom. “Working with the newly-designed space, I was able to plan and deliver a senior level French literary studies course, in which parts of the four focus works of my dissertation could be presented in an active learning context.”

Reflection and classroom discussion were heavily encouraged throughout the term. “Students would be required to individually complete a short reflection paper on the work prior to each class. Additional reflection and discussion would be facilitated by requiring small groups of students to answer and present a series of questions related to the work, as a team. Alternatively, as a class, we would complete the reflection process together while working with Google Docs simultaneously. These team-based and active learning strategies would have been very difficult to accomplish in a traditional classroom.”

Using this past and all future renditions of her course, Riel hopes to present a novel conceptual model for learning and teaching that incorporates both the impact of space and student-centered interactions. Aside from ensuring the continued appreciation and understanding of literature, developing pragmatic teaching and learning strategies that continue to engage students of all backgrounds is Riel’s main mission.

“Pedagogical research is, of course, very important to me. It should be important to everyone. The more we know about how human beings learn and the more effectively instructors can teach, the more prosperous our society can be.”

Ariadna Neguletu-Morogan
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014