Friday, April 3, 2015

Motivating students - resources, tips, considerations

It is the week after spring break, the halfway mark for the spring semester, and campus is back in the swing of things.  Well, everyone is back, but the level of motivation might not be what is was at the beginning of the semester.

In looking around for some suggestions for instructors on motivating students in the middle of the semester, I first stumbled on a wealth of advice and thoughts on the "mid-semester slump" geared towards students.  So, instructors, the first thing to keep in mind is that the lower level of motivation and enthusiasm that you are sensing in the classroom midway through the semester may be much more general than it feels initially.  Don't take it personally!  The middle of the semester often coincides with a change in the weather and, in the case of the weeks following spring break, the challenge of transitioning back to a more regimented schedule when summer is just weeks away.  

There are a number of great suggestions out there for instructors who want to make adjustments in an effort to improve students' motivation.  However, much of this advice is best suited for the beginning of a new semester.  The Center for Teaching + Learning at University of Texas, for example, offers some excellent advice for motivating and engaging students; Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley is another great resource.  Unless your class is facing a dire situation, however, modifying core, foundational details of the course (how grades are determined, learning objectives, etc.) is more likely to lead to frustrated rather than motivated students.

So what is an instructor to do when it is the middle of the semester?

Here are a couple of resources that may be helpful at any point during the semester:

"Solve a Teaching Problem" tool from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon
In Step 1, a list of possible issues is presented; the top of the list focuses on issues related to attitudes and motivation.  Clicking on any one of the options will produce a list of possible reasons for what you are observing (Step 2) which then leads to some ways of addressing the problem (Step 3).  For example, does it seem like students lack interest or motivation?  One possible reason (out of six that are provided) is the variety of other priorities that compete for students' attention.  These selections lead to four possible strategies in Step 3; out of these strategies to explore, at least three, if not all four, can be reasonably implemented in the middle of the semester.
This list of FAQs includes a number of inquiries that coordinate with what we see in the classroom in the middle of the semester including some suggestions for working with groups are no longer collaborating successfully, elevating student interest in the material, and increasing the odds of students reading or preparing prior to class meetings.
Hopefully one of these tools will provide you with an idea worth implementing as you attempt to counteract that mid-semester slump!  
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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.