Monday, September 8, 2014

What I learned from my first week teaching in an active learning classroom

In short: The active learning room changes almost everything.

I listened to our instructors who shared their experiences last semester, and I heard what they were saying, including:

  • The environment is great for students working in small groups. 
  • Even better if the students have something to do/work on together.
  • Planning, organization, and clear instructions are a must for activities (and takes a lot of prep time!).
  • Groups finish at different rates so need to have something planned for those who finish earlier.
  • The teacher station being located in the middle of the room is a new experience to get used to.
  • Students' attention is focused inward to what is happening at or in their groups/pods.
  • Giving a lecture, even a mini one, can be a challenge (see all of the above for explanation as to why!).

I never doubted a word of this feedback, but it is a completely new thing to experience them myself.  I took these to heart when planning for the first day, and it went well.  Overall we used just about everything available to us - technology, group workstations, whiteboards, open space (for our mixer); we brainstormed, discussed, located info, reported out.  It felt like we pretty much did it all and that it went smoothly.

And then there was Day 2.

Let's just say that things didn't go according to plan.  A mixture of things contributed to Day 2 not living up to my expectations, and I have been mulling it all over since 12:50pm on Friday.  Here are what I believe to be some contributing factors (sharing just in case it becomes useful for others):

  • Too much was planned for a 50-minute period.
  • The questions I posed to the class were too many and not strategic enough.
  • A pod computer died in the midst of a group activity, leaving one group stranded since the activity relied on each group being able to display on the monitor located at the pod.  This threw off the rhythm more than I expected it too.
  • A student's input seemed to be a conversation killer following what was otherwise a useful brainstorming session.  (And in hindsight, of course, I realize I could have recovered better!)
I spent the weekend brainstorming ideas of my own: structure for class meeting times, classroom management, clearer ways to present instructions.  I know that it is possible for an active learning-based class to run smoothly - luckily I have insights from colleagues here on campus and my own first day experience to build on.  I am convinced that the planning and organizing is key.  Maybe I had fallen out of practice with doing this because my classes had hit a rhythm of sorts over the past few years; often times I could walk into the classroom armed with a couple of old standby _____ (fill in the blank here: applications, problems to solve, news headlines to analyze, data set to manipulate) and go with the flow.  Perhaps part of me figured that it is still the same content and structure (hybrid/blended) so this semester would be more about ramping up the student engagement and involvement that I have been working to incorporate over the past few years.  It is so much more.  In some ways I feel like I am new to teaching again even though it has been nearly ten years since I started.  (The level of detail I am now planning out reminds me of the days when I used to note when to use the overhead projector vs. chalkboard - just 5-6 years ago! - and how to transition.)  It is very possible that the Day 2 experience is exactly what I needed - a swift kick in the pants to make the rest of the semester as successful as possible.

Today, Day 3, was better.  Back on the upswing.  Days 4 and 5 will be even better.  It takes time to get a feel for what works best in the space during our allotted class time.  I will share a bit more about what worked (and what didn't) during Week 2 once it is complete.

*It is worth noting that if I would have reacted as if Day 2 was how it was always going to be in an active learning-based class, with group work, in that particular classroom, it wouldn't be very appealing to continue.  I am convinced that all days don't have to be like Day 2.  For me, at this time, it is worth it to keep trying, to find the balance between planning out class meetings - every activity (well, every 5 minutes of class time, really) - and going with the flow.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Checking course resources & welcoming students

One week to go!  Summer always seems to accelerate as the start of the semester nears.  Good intentions are not always enough... I am combining the recommendations for two weeks and one week until the first day of class here - the days just got away from me.  Curious as to what I had potentially glazed over at the two week mark, I am relieved to see that the recommendations from McKeachie's Teaching Tips includes checking resources and starting a teaching portfolio or journal.  (I admit I had a slightly adverse reaction to the second recommendation until I realized that these blog entries could count as a journal of sorts.)  

Checking Resources
This is a good time to double-check the availability readings, video clips, etc. that students will need to access this semester.  I am also a fan of the suggestion to visit the classroom(s) in advance.  The visit will provide an opportunity to see the physical layout of the room, whether or not the tables and chairs are able to be moved, and to try out the technology (at the teacher station, for example) to make sure it is working as expected.  The advance visit can be important even for those of us who are scheduled for the same classrooms every term because room details can change.  One of my go-to classrooms, for example, received an upgrade this summer, and I will be making a trip over to see the new setup this afternoon.   

A welcome message greeting students in D2L.
Welcoming Students to the Course
A welcome message of some kind can help to set the stage for the upcoming semester.  The welcome message can be posted as an announcement in D2L (or whatever your LMS or online course environment happens to be) or sent via email.  A friendly tone goes a long way, and if you have any expectations for how things should happen at the start of the semester, this is an opportunity to communicate those expectations with students.  If D2L or the online environment will be used throughout the semester, setting up a discussion area, for example, and prompt that encourages students to introduce themselves is also an option.  According to Boettcher and Conrad (2010):
"Social presence, that is, getting to know each other as three-dimensional people, is the foundation of building trust and presence for the teaching and learning experiences.  Getting acquainted at the social level creates a trusting and understanding environment for reaching out and risking beliefs in the content discussions" (p.51).
Even though the authors are speaking explicitly to the beginning of an online course, I tend to agree with this outlook for teaching and learning in any course whether it is online, face-to-face, or hybrid.  Building this social presence and foundation of trust is one of the things I am constantly working on as an instructor; it requires balancing a variety of things, but I keep working at it because I believe that it adds a great deal of value to the learning environment.

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
 Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Instructional Strategies & Learning Objectives

This post is part of an ongoing conversation about planning an active learning-based class for Fall 2014; the initial post outlines some priorities for the next few weeks, and a second post discusses some possible plans for the first class meeting.

Planning is key for successful active learning sessions.  As I mentioned last week, I am in the midst of planning class meetings for a course with content that is familiar, but this will be the first semester the class meets in an active learning classroom; as a result, I am in the midst of identifying appropriate activities and instructional strategies for various topics.  In doing so, I stumbled across this page from Carnegie Mellon which summarizes some commonly used instructional strategies with links to additional information and considerations.  A bonus is that coordinating learning objectives are listed alongside the instructional methods.  So, if you already have a sense of the goal for a particular topic, lesson, or class meeting but are still looking for ideas on how to approach it, this might be of some help.  Alternatively, if you already know of a great approach for a particular topic, this could help streamline the process of identifying an appropriate learning objective.

Note: The entire Design & Teach a Course site from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon is a great resource - not to mention the other available categories (technology, assessment, solve a teaching problem, etc.).

Bonwell and Sutherland (1996) describe active learning activities as lying along a continuum; tasks range from simple to complex.  Plus, active learning activities can be mixed in with existing instructional strategies (e.g., lecturing and Q&A) and introduced gradually.  These are helpful details to keep in mind, especially if active learning is a new adventure.  Someone who already has lectures prepared, for example, can break a 45-minute lecture into three smaller mini-lectures, pausing after each mini-lecture to allow students to review notes in pairs or small groups.  Bonwell and Sutherland (1996) identify this "pause procedure" as an example of a simple active learning task; it could also be paired with a Q&A session (in the spirit of "Think-Pair-Share") and/or a short exercise requiring students to apply the information from the mini-lecture.  Abruptly switching instructional strategies is not required or even recommended.  Instead, the number of (or complexity level of) active learning activities can be increased over time, whether that is within a single semester or across semesters.

Bonwell, C. C., and T. E. Sutherland (1996). The active learning continuum: Choosing activities to engage students in the classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996 (67), 3-16.