Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why I continue to incorporate active learning

Our focus in class last week was on specification bias.  A challenging topic if you ask me - I have no doubt that my students will agree.  Our textbook offers a nice discussion of specification bias, including common causes, steps for detecting possible bias, and an equation for determining the sign of the expected bias.  The equation is handy but seems to suggest that identifying the sign (positive or negative) of the bias is a pretty simple process.  It isn't, especially for those new to applied econometrics.

But this post isn't about econometrics (I promise).  It is about the power of active learning in the classroom - a single example of why I continue to incorporate active learning strategies in my classes no matter what type of classroom I am scheduled in.

Here is what I have learned from students over the past few years when it comes to this particular topic:
  • Students find an intro to why and when we might encounter this topic/issue to be helpful.
  • They appreciate an expanded discussion of this "simple" equation from the textbook.  (What, exactly, does each component represent, and how do we determine whether a component should be positive or negative?)
  • Practice with applying the equation is helpful.  
I planned accordingly for Monday's face-to-face meeting.  The students completed a "warm-up" exercise prior to the start of class; the exercise asked them to apply the decision-making process outlined in the textbook.  Our class meeting then started with a Q&A session followed by a "Go to Your Post"-inspired activity in which the two sides of the rooms represented the two available conclusions with students out of their seats, casting their "vote" and discussing their reasoning with one another (Silberman, 1996, p.61).  

Then it was time to dig into the details of this equation from the textbook.

I offered a mini-lecture, complete with scribbles, in an effort to clarify some of the details that coordinate with this innocent-looking equation.  Or so I thought.  I paused for questions after about 5-7 minutes of talking about the components of this equation and was, for a moment, happy that the students seemed to be satisfied with my explanations.  

Some of my "clarifying" scribbles from the mini-lecture.  Not all that enlightening in hindsight!
Time for practice.  I presented the students with two scenarios to analyze plus a follow-up question and instructed them to work in pairs on the first scenario.  Usually, the classroom starts to hum with activity as students start to work, but the room was silent.  Finally, a brave student spoke up and asked which two variables they were supposed to be focusing on.  I could feel the relief in the room; it was apparent that she wasn't the only one wondering how to get started.

So we switched gears and analyzed the first scenario together as a class which provided an opportunity for the students to see how I applied the process and used the equation within the given scenario.  This inspired a handful of questions (good ones!), and then the students got to work on analyzing the second scenario in pairs.  We reconvened as a class to brainstorm possible responses to the coordinating follow-up question.

I am grateful for last Monday's experience because it reinforces my reasons for incorporating "work time" into our face-to-face meetings in the classroom.  What if I had assigned that set of problems as homework instead of as in-class work?  I may have not realized until days later that some of the students were struggling with how to get started.  Instead, by working on the problems in the classroom, I was able to respond to what the students needed right when they needed it.  

I have revised my list of what is helpful for students for this particular topic.  The second bullet point now looks something like this:
  • They appreciate an expanded discussion of this "simple" equation from the textbook and a demonstration of how to apply the equation within a given scenario.
Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Getting started with Padlet

My collection of Padlet walls (or pages) is growing by the day.  My previous post highlights a few reasons why, but for a few ideas on how others are using Padlet in the classroom, check out this post on the Padlet blog, this short article from Education World, or this example from, just to name a few.

Since I have been broadcasting my newfound love for Padlet, it is only fair that I offer a brief overview of getting started.  And it is brief because it really is that easy!
  • The first step is to visit
  • The Padlet homepage.
    • The link to "Features" at the top of the page provides an overview of what can be done, all on a Padlet wall!
  • When you are ready to try it out, either click on the orange "Create something" button in the middle of the page or the green "Sign up" button located in the upper-right corner.
    • When your Padlet wall is ready, the toolbar area on the right will guide you to either post something or modify the wall:
The Padlet toolbar will prompt you to post or modify wall settings when wall is created.
    • You can always modify later – layout, background, privacy, URL, etc. – by clicking on the gear/cog icon that appears in the toolbar hanging out on the right-hand side of the page. 
In my experience, it really is that easy! Of course, these are just the basics, so if you are interested in more detail, I recommend this video from Richard Byrne at FreeTech4Teachers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Using Padlet to initiate in-class (and out-of-class) discussions

I knew they had questions.

There had only been four class meetings and less than two weeks for us to get comfortable with the class structure and one another.  Plus, our first stretch of online activities for our hybrid class was quickly approaching.  Despite all of this, the discussion area on D2L reserved for general Q&A remained quiet.  Zero posts.

Addressing questions, concerns, and requests was likely to alleviate some of the uncertainty that can accompany the initial “online days” in a hybrid class, especially on a campus like ours in which hybrid (blended) courses still are not all that common.  On a whim, I set up a Padlet page for questions – any kind of questions, no names attached – and set aside three minutes near the beginning of class for the students to chat and post questions.  Within those three minutes, we had a whole collection of things to address, with each group posting at least one question and some posting four or five.  I spent the next few minutes directly addressing a handful of the posted questions, focusing on the ones that were likely to benefit most from the students’ input (e.g., a question about assignment due dates) or repeating an important message (e.g., yes, asking questions and contacting me via email during our online stretch are both part of the deal).

A glimpse (screen shot) of just part of our questions page on the Padlet site.
Three things I love most about Padlet include: 
  •    The ease of setting up a page with just a moment’s notice.
  •      The fact that no login is required for students to post and/or view – I just have to provide them with the URL.  Double-clicking on the background is all it takes to add a post once you are on the page.
  •       Its collaborative nature, especially when students can see the other posts appearing as they make their own contribution.
Maybe it is the third item that really wins me over - there is something reassuring about putting yourself out on a limb when you can see others doing the same!  Padlet is like a wiki-meets-online-bulletin-board that is just plain easy to use.  It seems much more organic than the discussion area available in the LMS (which has its own usefulness), and I appreciate that the conversation can continue outside of class too.  Several questions were added to the board after class was over, and I was able to go back and post responses to the questions we didn't have time to elaborate on while in the classroom.  Once this was accomplished, I simply re-posted the URL as part of an announcement alerting the students to the updates.

I have no doubt that we will be using Padlet to jump start in-class conversation again in the near future!  In the meantime, I will be looking around for ideas of how others are using Padlet for teaching and learning.