Monday, February 16, 2015

Students are expected to do more in active learning - and they deserve to know why.

When it comes to what is happening in the classroom, an active learning approach requires that students do more when compared with a traditional lecture-based class.  Comments about this often sneak their way into course evals, prompting frustration from instructors who have spent countless hours preparing and integrating active learning strategies into a course (myself included!).

Take the time to explain why you are incorporating active learning to the students.  Better yet, demonstrate to students why active learning is beneficial through an activity.

This recommendation lands squarely at the top of the list of "Do's" when it comes to active learning.  David Gooblar's recent post on Vitae, "Why Students Resist Active Learning," offers this tip as one way to help combat student resistance to doing more in the classroom.  In Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment, Doyle argues that student buy-in is the biggest hurdle instructors face when trying to adopt a learner-centered approach to teaching (p.17).  Telling students that the class will include active learning is not enough - it is the "why" that is so important here.

If I have learned anything from ten years in the classroom, it is this: be as obvious as possible.  Sure, meeting in a classroom that is arranged in pods (instead of rows or individual desks) is a visual clue that the class meetings may run a little differently than what students are used to.  Clues are not enough, even when they seem glaringly obvious.  Talk with the students about active learning.  Explain why it is being used in conjunction with (or as an alternative to) lecture.  Provide an opportunity for students to ask questions about it.  Also, be prepared to offer the "why active learning" message throughout the semester.

Including students in the conversation about active learning during the semester may help to alleviate some of the backlash that would otherwise show up on course evals.  After all, if a student's first opportunity to say something about active learning is on the course evaluation handed out at the end of the semester, then the comments are most likely to surface right then and there - on paper (or an online form) at the end of the semester.  This is less than ideal for a couple of reasons: (1) there is no longer an opportunity for a conversation, and (2) the next opportunity to make adjustments will be in a future semester with (most often) a different group of students.  Start the conversation about active learning early and keep it going throughout the semester.

Looking for more on discussing active learning with students?  Here are a couple of options:

Doyle, T. (2008).  Helping students learn in a learner-centered environment: A guide to facilitating learning in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Quick activities to get students talking with each other

Our campus was fortunate enough to have Dr. Christine Harrington on campus last month for a series of workshops.  An active learning classroom turned out to be a good fit for Christine's lively, participant-centered style of workshop delivery; the fact that each session was peppered with a variety of classroom activities turned out to be an added bonus of being a workshop participant.  A few of my favorite activities from the sessions are shared below.  Each activity described here makes use of index cards but small pieces of scratch paper are likely to work just as well.  (UWEC instructors - stop by Printing Services in Schofield 18 to pick up free pads of pre-cut scratch paper.)

Five Card Pass (in 5 minutes or less)
Provide students with a prompt (answer a question, make a list, etc.) and 1-2 minutes to write down their anonymous response on an index card.  With everyone out of their seats, students then exchange cards five times - the exchanges have to be with classmates that are not sitting at their pod/table.  The cards (and ideas) have now been randomly shuffled, so to speak, and students can be asked to do a number of things with the info on their new card - add, discuss, find an example, respond, etc. 
Brainwriting (5-10 minutes)
Provide students with a prompt, index cards, and 1-2 minutes to respond with one item or detail, writing it at the top of the card.  Next, instruct students to pass the index card to the right and write down another item/detail on the card that is now in front of them.  Same prompt, but the response must be unique - i.e., it cannot be the same as one written or read on other cards.  Continue passing and responding until the time is up or the possibilities have been exhausted.  
A more thorough overview of brainwriting is available on the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit wiki.  For an argument in favor of using brainwriting, check out this video from the Kellogg School of Management - it also highlights a variation of the brainwriting exercise described above.
Save the Last Word for Me (10-15 minutes)
This activity is designed to give everyone in the group a chance to be heard and practice listening skills.  Plus, it gives students something to do with an assigned reading and gets them talking (with each other!) about it.  See more information about this activity on The Teacher Toolkit site.
Often times, students are accustomed to directing questions, comments, responses, etc. to the instructor and need an extra nudge to, instead, exchange ideas with one another.  The activities shared here are relatively low-prep ways to get students engaging with one another in the classroom - and each has the possibility of being implemented in 15 minutes or less.  Perfect for getting students talking with one another with little preparation and each of these activities can be adapted to a wide variety of topics, prompts, and readings.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Options for randomly selecting students or groups

Reporting out and sharing with the class often act as a transition from students working in small groups to bringing the whole class back together.  Making sure that all students are contributing to the larger group/class effort is important; for a class to be a learning community, ideas and information must be shared by all members (Barkley, 2010, p.122).

What are some ways to include everyone?  Having a go-to strategy for determining who reports out can be handy, and fairness is key.  Students do not want to feel like they are being singled out; instead, it needs to be clear that everyone has an equal chance of being called on.  Some instructors write students' names on index cards, shuffling through to select the next contributor and making note of how many times each student has contributed to the class discussion.  Similarly, student names can be placed on strips of paper and randomly pulled from a bag, box, or whatever is convenient for the classroom.  Here are a few tech-based options that may be worth considering too:
If your class has 50 or fewer students, this web-based tool might be worth checking out.  I love its colorful, attention-grabbing design, and the fact that it is easy to use doesn't hurt either!  No login needed; it is easy to copy-and-paste student names from a text or Excel file and then save to access in the future with a unique URL.  
The Random Name Selector is also web-based and easy to use.  Copy students' names from an existing document or spreadsheet and paste into the Change Names area, click Go! and let the tool do the work.  The Save and Share button provides a unique URL so that the list of names can be accessed each time you use it in the classroom.  One advantage over the Random Name Picker is its ability to accommodate more than 50 names.  (I used it successfully with 90 names which accommodates most class sizes on our campus.)
I heard about The Hat from J. Ricky Cox during his session on engaging large classes at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference.  It is a free download designed for Windows machines, and one of the potential advantages this tool offers is its ability to select more than one name at a time - useful for randomly assigning partners or groups.  See the short demo video from Harmony Hollow for more.
Entering group numbers instead of individual student names is also an option for each of these tools.  In the middle of a class period, I have a tendency to want to call on the groups who either finish first or are most likely to complete high quality work, but it is important to share the wealth and hear from each group (over time).  Having a way to randomly call on groups keeps them on their toes and helps guard against groups thinking that they can "get out" of sharing simply by not completing the task in the allotted time or doing poor quality work.

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.