Monday, March 30, 2015

Strategies for lectures in an active learning classroom

Is it ok to lecture in an active learning class or classroom?  Absolutely.  A short lecture can be used to present background information that students will analyze or assemble as part of an activity.  Or, instead, students may be confused and in need of clarification and guidance in order to move forward with confidence.  These are just two out of many reasons why a lecture may be a beneficial component of a class, even one that meets in an active learning classroom.

Strategies for improving the effectiveness of lectures, regardless of classroom, center on breaking up the lecture into digestible pieces (~15 minutes or less) that are interspersed with short activities that engage students.  And by short, we're talking 2-6 minutes!  Johnston and Cooper (1997) offer eight different "Quick-thinks," a few of which are highlighted below.  See the full list of Quick-thinks, with examples, reprinted with permission by Tomorrow's Professor on this page.

Overview of select Quick-thinks from Johnston and Cooper (1997):
  • Select the best response
This may be the quickest of the Quick-thinks as long as you have some multiple choice questions on hand.  Don't be tempted to identify the correct answer right away though!  Give the students some time to grapple with the options and why one of the options is the best out of the bunch.  I often used old test questions for this sort of exercise in my lower-level classes and found that some of the distractors provided much-needed opportunities to address misunderstandings or preconceived notions.
  • Complete a sentence starter
The sentence starter can be simple and focused on recall (e.g., List the three main points of...), ask students to apply information from the lecture (e.g., Predict what will happen if...), or even venture into analysis (e.g., ______ is in direct contrast to ______ because ______).
  • Reorder the steps
Great option for anything process-oriented.  Provide students with the name of each step but in a random order and provide them with 2-3 minutes to put the steps in the correct order.  
  • Paraphrase the idea
Ask students to express an important idea, statement, or argument from the lecture in their own words.  Johnston and Cooper (1997) recommend also identifying the audience for the rephrased content, e.g., classmate, internship supervisor, parent.
The physical setup of an active learning classroom, however, may pose some challenges to delivering a lecture.  The active learning classrooms are clearly set up with students working and communicating in groups as the default setup - great for group activities, but creates a challenge when a central focal point is desired.  This is not a UWEC-specific issue; University of Minnesota describes the lack of a central focal point as a potential consideration for instructors in active learning rooms, and I agree with the recommendations to:
  • use amplification - so important when some students are facing away from you!
  • provide students with a cue to shift focus from groups to instructor and/or screen.
All active learning classrooms at UWEC are equipped with a wireless lapel mic, so amplification is available.  Believe me, I'm not a microphone person, but the mic's impact is noticeable to those in the room, especially those seated facing away from the instructor.  It is a worth a try!

Note, also, that these two recommendations can be one in the same.  The cue for students to transition from interaction within the group to something being presented to/shared with the whole class could be an announcement by the instructor using the microphone.  Communicate this - or any cue - with students in advance so that they know what to look and/or listen for!

Johnston, S., & Cooper, J. (1997). Quick-thinks: Active thinking in lecture classes and televised instruction. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 8(1), 2-6.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Online whiteboard tools

A few months ago, I offered a handful of options for students reporting out in the classroom, and it is time to add a few more to the list.  I've spent some time trying out various online whiteboard tools this week, and since Richard Byrne at FreeTech4Teachers offers a great summary of several of these tools in this blog post, my focus here will be on some potential uses for online whiteboard tools.

Quick, informal activities

  • Underline or highlight key text in a short excerpt from an article or other reading
  • Draw a diagram (e.g., structural formula in chemistry, consumer surplus in economics)
  • Annotate an image

Keep in mind that an image can be of just about anything - a photograph, political cartoon, map, screenshot of text from a webpage or an article, foundation for a concept/mind map, etc.  This is where an online whiteboard tool may be preferred to the physical whiteboard surfaces available in the classrooms; the physical whiteboard is a blank slate but an online whiteboard tool offers more options for using a "pen" to markup or add to an existing object.

Online whiteboard tools that may be best suited for quick, informal activities include: Stoodle, Web Whiteboard, and PixiClip.  Why?  No need to sign up for an account to use Stoodle and Web Whiteboard even for those interested in collaboration - just send your class/teammates the URL.  PixiClip offers some different features, but the online whiteboard tools can be used without signing up for an account.  You may want to consider creating an account if interested in sharing online; however, if the goal is to share in the active learning classrooms, it may be easiest to use the teacher station controls to send a group's screen to the rest of the monitors in the room for discussion.

The online whiteboard tool available from Stoodle.
Activities that are more formal and/or might need additional features

  • Annotating or commenting on anything more than a brief excerpt from a script, article, case study, etc. (e.g., each team member is assigned a section from an article but the team has to collaborate to identify strengths, weaknesses, and contributions to the discipline)
  • Building a comprehensive concept/mind map
  • Creating visual maps of a timeline of events or a process

A tool like RealtimeBoard might be a better choice for an activity that is more formal either in its level of collaboration or the tasks it involves.  Premium features are available for free with an educational account which applies to both instructors and students (note that the verification process takes up to 24 hours).  In addition to features that you might expect from an online whiteboard tool, RealtimeBoard makes collaboration from a distance easier with a live chat feature and the ability to start a conversation within the whiteboard through the "Comments" tool.  The ability to zoom in and out and move freely around the whiteboard space seems like a good fit for building and organizing a visual map of any kind; the whiteboard doesn't appear to be restricted in size or by where the first stuff is added (you can still move up and/or left from where you start on the board).  You can check out more of RealtimeBoard's features in one or more of these video tutorials.

RealtimeBoard's interface and available tools.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Do you use a rubric or grading criteria when evaluating student work?

Consider providing opportunities for students to practice applying the criteria to sample work.  Discussion is likely to ensue, which is a great thing!  Students have a chance to ask clarifying questions and explore the meaning of items listed in the rubric or grade sheet before their own work is evaluated based on its contents.  This process can get a lot of the confusion out of the way early on and may even result in a greater number of high quality submissions from students(!).

For my intro-level class, I collect samples of student work across semesters, maintaining a collection of a few samples for each assignment type.  Important: I only use samples for which I have the student's permission - their work is their work!  I remove any of the student's identifying information and replace it with a generic label for each sample (e.g., Sample X, Sample Y, Sample Z) to use for reference purposes.

I am a fan of using the same type of assignment (as part of a variety) at least a handful of times throughout the semester, simply adjusting the topic to coordinate with our focus at various points in time.  I then vary topics from semester to semester, which works out well for practicing with the rubric as an in-class exercise.

The first short writing assignment from last semester focused on consumer spending, so when it is time to discuss consumer spending this semester, I pull out the coordinating student writing samples and set aside class time for the rubric practice activity.
  • Step 1: The students cluster into small groups (size of group = number of samples), and I provide each group with a set of the student samples and multiple copies of the coordinating rubric (one for each student).   
  • Step 2: In a round robin fashion, the students are to rotate through the samples, marking down their evaluation of each on their copy of the rubric.  Depending on the assignment type and the size of the groups, 10-15 minutes may be needed for this step in this process
  • Step 3: Group discussion of evaluation results.  Some questions for the students to explore and discuss include: How similar are the group's ratings for each writing sample?  What the reasons for any differences in the ratings for a particular writing sample (be specific!)?  What details in the rubric need clarification before your group is comfortable re-evaluating the writing sample(s)?  Estimated time: 7-10 minutes
  • Step 4: Debriefing with the whole class.  This is a great opportunity to hear from the groups about any sticking points with the rubric and to answer any lingering questions.  Estimated time: 7-10 minutes
I started using this activity in my classroom after taking part in an artifact read.  As the group of reviewers, we spent a considerable amount of time "calibrating" our use of the rubric and discussing the details it contained.  This was a necessary part of the process, particularly because the work we were reviewing fell outside our of primary disciplines most of the time.  When it came to disciplines for which I would consider myself a non-expert, the rubrics often seemed to be filled with jargon and muddy details; I often found that I could make more sense out of the language in a rubric once I saw a few examples that coordinated with the various levels.

As non-experts, especially in an intro-level course, I figured students might also benefit from a set of examples and practicing the art of matching them up with the criteria stated in a rubric.  The first time I tried this activity, I figured the minutes spent in the classroom would pay off in terms of students having a better understanding of the assignment type and how their work would be evaluated.  However, since the rubric contains elements for accuracy and clarity of the information about the topic, we often end up having great conversations about the topic itself, particularly when groups have feedback about examples/applications shared in the writing samples or share additional examples that may better illustrate the concept.