The OWLS Program Spreads Its Wings

January 26, 2015

Rosalind Black

student writing on whiteboard
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

“The best way to test one's own understanding is being able to explain something to a peer,” says Marcelo Vinces, director of the Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR), of the Oberlin Workshop and Learning Sessions (OWLS) program. OWLS gives students opportunities to more fully learn and review the material for their classes at regular meetings hosted by OWLS leaders, students who have already taken the course, and attend classes again along with current students. These leaders are trained to review class content while teaching study skills, and facilitate peer-based learning and engaging group-learning activities. As Vinces says, the goal is to encourage students taking the class to teach each other, enhancing their own understanding as well as their peers’.

Students who attend OWLS meetings can expect a well-rounded approach to reviewing information. “OWLS creates materials that get students to practice and apply what they've learned in a variety of ways, by writing, talking about problems and content, drawing it out, teaching each other,” Vinces says. Not only does this allow students to go over what they have just learned, it also highlights what content they need to work on more and what study habits it might help to develop. CLEAR has come to observe that students who attend OWLS often study together beyond the sessions, reinforcing what they learned and getting to know each other better, which isn’t always possible in a large lecture class.

“It’s a very intimate atmosphere,” says second-year Eoin Mullaney, who plans to major in neuroscience. “It’s a lot of one-on-one work. When a lot of the lecture courses have upwards of 50 to even 95 students in my neuroscience course, it’s really hard to get that one-on-one time with the educator and the student. That’s something that, coming from a very small school, is very important to me. I think OWLS does a really good job of maintaining that small student to teacher ratio.”

Students currently taking these classes are not the only ones benefitting from the OWLS program. Through their participation, OWLS leaders have the opportunity to review class material that might help them in higher-level classes and even studying for the MCAT or subject area GREs. Many leaders find the position gives them confidence and public speaking skills, the satisfaction of helping their peers learn, and closer relationships with professors with whom they meet regularly. “I also think the OWLS program allows students to take more agency in education, in how a course functions, and in creating learning environments for their peers,” Vinces says.

For some, becoming an OWLS leader is a way to give back to the program and pay forward their experiences. “Personally, I got a lot out of the OWLS program when I took organismal biology,” fourth-year and OWLS leader Michelle Ehrenberger says. “I really admired the OWLs leaders for their enthusiasm, knowledge, and helpfulness, and I wanted to be in that position and pass on the learning that I had gained.”

Since the program began, more and more classes have gained the support of OWLS, and, while much data has yet to be analyzed, CLEAR has noted a positive correlation between course performance and number of OWLS sessions attended. CLEAR, a promoter of interdisciplinary practices in education, has also had reports of cross-pollination among science departments. OWLS leaders serve in classes outside of their majors, spreading information and techniques between faculty and students in different departments organically. With this feedback under the OWLS program’s wings, Vinces hopes to see it grow and continue unifying Oberlin’s science departments and increasing its ability to educate future scientists.

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