Learning by teaching 

Students in Qatar, used to one-way lecture formats, thrive using a teamwork-centered approach taught by a Fulbright scholar. 

Dr. Charity Lovitt, associate teaching professor in the University of Washington Bothell’s School of STEM.

Dr. Charity Lovitt, associate teaching professor in the University of Washington Bothell’s School of STEM, loves to travel and does so frequently. “I have been an Alaska Airlines MVP Gold member for three years in a row,” she joked. 

While she is certainly an experienced traveler, last year Lovitt took a trip that was unlike any before. 

“I go on most trips with my husband to visit close friends and family, but in August of 2023 I went to the State of Qatar completely on my own,” she said. “It was a place I had never been to with a language I barely spoke. I also had no experience with their culture and went there to work with colleagues I had never met. To say I was out of my comfort zone would be an understatement.” 

Lovitt went to Qatar as a part of the Fulbright U.S. Scholar program that sends 400 scholars from the U.S. to institutions around the world to teach, conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to mutual understanding. 

Translating teaching methods 

Lovitt had more than 150 different countries to choose from but decided on Qatar because the UW Bothell campus has such a diverse student population. 

A building.

“More than 30% of our international students come from Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian countries,” she said. “Qatar is a hub for education and innovation in the Middle East, and brings in students from across the region.” 

From her arrival in August to her departure in January, Lovitt taught first-year science courses to college students. “My goal was to determine how to adapt student-centered practices that are widely used in American schools to the Middle Eastern classroom,” she said. “There are key differences in learners’ values, perceptions, communication styles and expected outcomes in each setting. 

Her pedagogy was based in Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, an approach to teaching and learning in which students work in teams to discover key ideas and practice important skills. “POGIL increases student engagement, learning and retention,” she said. 

Students in Qatar, however, are not used to this method of instruction. Instead, they are accustomed to lectures. “I knew I would have to work hard to engage them in active learning,” she said, “and I was certainly up for the challenge.” 

Surprising student insights 

On the first day of class, Lovitt spent time getting to know her students. She set up an online poll to determine what her students wanted to major in and was surprised to see a majority chose engineering. “This was very different than at UW Bothell, where most of my students want to major in Health Studies,” she said. 

She then created another online poll asking students to name one thing they would need to be successful in their future career. 

“Given the emphasis on engineering, I thought that students would state they needed math and science content, which, of course, they do,” she said. “But I was surprised to find that their response was nearly identical to the ones I receive in my U.S. classes. Most of the skills are communication, time management or teamwork. 

This information proved invaluable to shaping the students’ classoom experience. “None of these skills can be gained from traditional lecture or memorizing chemical formulas,” Lovitt said. “However, these skills are ingrained in the POGIL method of teaching and can be taught if the students work in teams during class — providing an opportunity to learn the content while developing these skills.” 

Thriving in teamwork

Rather than lecture on course expectations and highlight the syllabus, Lovitt next asked students to work in teams to do a syllabus scavenger hunt and identify the most important expectations. 

A person presenting.

“Each team had four members,” she explained “A manager to keep the team on task, a recorder to record team notes on a sheet of paper, a spokesperson to verbally report team results and a reflector who made sure that all students agreed on an answer before they moved on.” 

Prior to arriving in Qatar, Lovitt had been cautioned by other instructors that the students wouldn’t feel comfortable working in teams and didn’t like asking questions in the class, mostly because they’re nervous about speaking in English. 

“I did not have this issue,” she said. “The students were engaged and enthusiastic. The 75 minutes of class flew by, and we barely had time to finish! I and the students left the class energized and excited for the term.” 

The remainder of the term followed a similar pattern. And day after day, Lovitt saw improvement in her students’ engagement. “They began to thrive in teamwork and found confidence in their schoolwork,” she said. “I had students who were very shy in the beginning become effective and good at advocating for themselves and their learning.” 

Challenging cultural differences 

Lovitt’s time in Qatar was not without challenges. Among the most prominent was the separation of male and female students. 

A building.

“This was one of the most distinct differences from teaching in the U.S.,” she said. “The female building is completely enclosed, and there are signs everywhere noting ‘only females, except male faculty.’ When students drive to campus, there are male entrances and female entrances. There are female security guards at every female building entrance to ensure that only females or male faculty enter.” 

She admitted that the strict gender separation was at first difficult to accept. “From the courses I taught at UW Bothell, I knew of numerous examples where women were kept out of scientific conversations because they were not allowed in male-only spaces,” she said. “Given my past experiences as a woman in STEM, combined with my American upbringing that separate is not equal, the idea of separate spaces was difficult to embrace.” 

Difficult, she said, but not impossible — and as time went on, she even began to see some positive aspects. “This is the first time in my career that I have taught only women. Being in STEM, it’s pretty common for women to be a minority in the classroom, but that is changing. In my undergrad, around 30% of the people in the classroom were female and the rest were male,” she said. 

“For the first time in my career, I didn’t have to worry about the male to female ratio in class teams, thus removing one of the barriers to female success in STEM.” 

For me what matters most is that my students experience a sense of belonging in the classroom . . . to me that is more important than just learning the content.

Dr. Charity Lovitt, associate teaching professor, School of STEM 

Mutual lessons learned

Lovitt will return to UW Bothell in September 2024 and plans to implement changes to her teaching style based on what she learned abroad — including adding Arabic examples to her work since subjects such as alchemy (chemistry) and algebra originally came from the Middle East. 

She said she is also committed to being more aware of student culture and customs when designing teams. “For me, what matters most is that my students experience a sense of belonging in the classroom . . . to me that is more important than just learning the content.” 

Just as Qatar University made an impact on Lovitt, she made a difference for her students — and even other faculty at Qatar University: By the end of her program, some professors were interested in the POGIL method and in trying cooperative approaches to their teaching

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