ThinkSpace facilitates better learning and teaching

Holly Bender needed help.

Earlier in her career as a veterinary clinical pathologist at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Bender was tasked with teaching about 100 veterinary medicine students how to accurately analyze data on sick animals to make correct diagnoses. She needed to teach her students -- who were used to only memorizing academic material up to this point -- to truly think.

"I couldn't clone myself to sit alongside 100 vet students and help them learn how to make a diagnosis, so my research team at Virginia Tech and I developed this tool," said Bender, who today is professor of veterinary pathology and associate director for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) here at Iowa State.

The tool, called Diagnostic Pathfinder, allowed Bender to break down the complexities of diagnosing an ailing animal into a six-stage process. Each stage built upon the previous step and, in the end, students were guided to a conclusion. Once students submitted their diagnoses, Bender's expert opinion popped up alongside their analyses so they could immediately compare notes.

"We like the students to be able to go out on a little bit of a limb, to be able to put their story together, but not so far that they get lost," Bender said. "We're just building expertise over time."

Fast forward to Iowa State

Bender came to Iowa State's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002, and she brought Diagnostic Pathfinder and her research team with her. As faculty in other disciplines witnessed Bender's teaching successes with the tool, they wanted to explore options for their students. That's when ThinkSpace was born.

What is ThinkSpace

ThinkSpace is an active learning and problem-solving technology platform with a set of teaching tools designed to help students decipher complex problems they eventually will confront in the workplace. It's open-source software (not owned by Iowa State or any other entity), designed and developed by a small technology company, Sixth Edge, in a unique partnership with faculty. Development is largely funded by grants. Funding by CELT and the office of the senior vice president and provost for hosting and technical support from Sixth Edge makes ThinkSpace available for free to all ISU faculty and students.

Pete Boysen, now retired from information technology, and other faculty across campus helped Bender transform her original diagnostic application into a "Swiss army knife of instructional tools," as she puts it. Today, ThinkSpace offers tools for writing, editing, team-based learning, essay draft development with feedback from instructors and students, and a carry-forward function that allows students to develop concepts in multiple stages.

Ideas for new tools are tossed around almost daily. For example, Jay Newell, associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, devised a "mark-up" tool, which allows him to review and comment on his students' assignments without ever touching a piece of paper. The students, who also have access to the tool, can see Newell's feedback, make changes and submit revised drafts for further comment by him or their peers.

"The thing that all these tools have in common is this ability to take big, complex problems, give them to students in bite-size pieces, and have them work on those little pieces and, in turn, get focused, frequent feedback from faculty," Bender said.

Tool development

Kajal Madeka, CELT's ThinkSpace program coordinator and instructional designer, leads the ThinkSpace Teaching and Learning Community, a group of about 100 faculty members who use ThinkSpace tools in their classrooms. Madeka meets with the group each month to share applications of ThinkSpace tools in different disciplines, discuss tweaks for existing tools and ideas for new ones, though not every idea makes the cut.

"There has to be enough support for a tool and buy-in from other faculty who think it's necessary," Madeka said. "The tool has to be impactful for students across campus."

If an idea is approved, faculty members from the learning community work through the Grants Hub to secure funding for the new tool.

"It's very grassroots," Bender said.

Benefits for faculty, too

ThinkSpace helps students solve complex problems, but there are advantages for faculty, too. Some ThinkSpace tools require faculty to load assignment answers into databases in advance, requiring them to work through problems from the students' point of view.

"The fact that the faculty already have input the correct data ahead of time was intentional," Madeka said. "They already think like experts, but when they work through the data, they realize that they need to scaffold the information more for students. It's all about intensive, critical thinking, not only for the students but for the faculty members."

A change for the better

Bender is well acquainted with the difficulties of teaching complex subject matter to large classes. She came up with a fix years ago, and now instructors across campus are benefitting from her work.

"I want to break faculty out of grading jail," Bender said. "I feel like I've been totally set free. I see so many faculty who are dedicated and want to do the right thing, but they get totally burned out in the process. ThinkSpace takes all that away."

Give it a try

Anyone from Iowa State can access ThinkSpace online at Select "Join ThinkSpace" and complete the registration information. Faculty should indicate they are an instructor, which will give them access to the tools already available. Madeka encourages instructors to first explore what ThinkSpace has to offer, and then consider how the tools may apply to their classes. 

"If you really want to teach critical thinking, if you want to engage students in deeper, real learning, then you should try ThinkSpace," Madeka said.

Instructors who need assistance exploring ThinkSpace or help with developing a course or assignment should contact Madeka at 294-5299.