Friday, November 14, 2014

A case for the group exam.

The first exam of the semester took place in early October, and as soon as the students walked in the room and sat down at the tables, I knew it had to be said.
"A quick reminder that today's exam is an individual assignment.  That is, there is no collaborating with your group members during the exam."
This announcement halted the conversations in the room, and I was met with more than a few puzzled faces as I passed out the exam.  Not overly surprising given that this focus on working individually on the exam is in direct contrast to what the students have been asked to do every other time they walked into the classroom up until that point.  Plus, the tables cannot be reconfigured in this particular room, so the students were doing their best to ignore each other at tables designed to foster collaboration.

Time to rethink the exam format.

Two weeks prior to the second exam, the students submitted their vote in response to an exit ticket question:
Yes or No: Should we approach Exam #2 as a take-home exam (individual attempt) and use class time on 11/5 to collaborate on the same questions with your group (group bonus attempt)?
The vote was a unanimous "Yes."  The definitive response from the students surprised me initially; they raised concerns and asked a number of questions prior to deciding that we should vote.  Stepping back and reflecting on the structure of our class, the decision to incorporate a collaborative attempt at the exam questions makes complete sense.  It aligns with how we approach each class meeting: give it a try on your own and then collaborate with your group to see if you, collectively, can come up with something better.

Even then, I wasn't sure anyone would actually show up to class for the group attempt!

Not only did the students show up for the group attempt, they got right to work, and the whole room was filled with conversation.  I overheard quite a few comments that fit in the categories of "Oh I didn't even think of that!" and "That is a possibility too, but now we have to figure out which one is the best approach."  I wandered around the room for a few minutes just observing before groups took me up on my role as an available resource.  It was one of the most productive class periods all semester.  Not only were students looking back at the exam they already took, they were analyzing and discussing its contents with each other!  Most students walked away with a better understanding of the answers than I could ever convey in an exam score or feedback (which, by the way, took the pressure off of me in terms of grading the individual exams as quickly as possible - added bonus!).

I use an approach that is similar to the one outlined by Maryellen Weimer in her Faculty Focus post on the benefits of group exams and quizzes; the group attempt at the exam is offered as a debriefing activity after the individual attempts are submitted.  The group attempt for our second exam was framed as a "bonus" opportunity.  For groups who collaborated successfully (scored 80% and above), the contributing members received bonus points, awarded on a sliding scale, that added to the score earned on their individual attempt.  This approach is very much in line with the items that topped the students' "wish list" for group work compiled at the beginning of the semester: class time will be allocated for group work, there will be accountability for individual preparation, and group activities will provide opportunities for group members to pool their various strengths.  All eight groups scored at least 80% on the group attempt, so everyone earned some bonus points for their efforts.

Barkley, Cross, and Major refer to this approach as "Test-Taking Teams," and their book, Collaborative Learning Techniques, offers examples from Psychology, English, Statistics, and Music Composition and Theory.  The examples illustrate that a number of variations are likely to work; shorter tests or quizzes, for example, allow for both the individual and group attempts to take place in one class period while another example highlights this activity being used with practice exams as students prepared for a comprehensive placement exam.  For those who have access to the journal New Directions for Teaching and Learning, the Winter 2004 issue contains a few articles on group exams as well, including examples from the sciences and engineering.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to group exams - the necessary planning and the pros and cons, generally speaking, are similar to any other group work situation.  If collaboration and group work are already a part of your class, then a group exam or quiz might be a reasonable addition.  When I inquired about their group exam experience, one group left me with this brief summary:
"Three brains are better than one!"

Achacoso, M., and Svinicki, M. (eds.). (2004, Winter). Alternative strategies for evaluating student learning [Special issue]. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 100, 1-119.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Teaching without learning is just talking."

This statement, found on p.3 of Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross, adequately describes my fear when I end up speaking for an extended amount of time in class.  My fear was realized last week when my mini-lecture breached the 15 minute mark, taking up close to a third of the class period.

It is worth pointing out that I am not a lecturer by nature.  Speaking in front of people used to be a dealbreaker for me, and while it is no longer at the top of the list of things that make me uncomfortable, I simply lose interest in hearing myself speak.  I am interested in hearing what other people have to add, what questions are lingering in the room, and whether or not people have a sense of how to move forward with the information.   The mini-lecture, which is an abbreviated, focused lecture (I tend to aim for 7-10 minutes), is definitely my preferred approach when there is information to share.

My rambling "mini"-lecture left me feeling guilty - sheepish might be a better descriptor - after class that day, primarily because we ran out of time to finish one of our activities.  I spent two days (over)analyzing the situation and decided a discussion with the students was warranted.  (Did that extended lecture work for them?  Why or why not?)  The students were greeted with the graphic found on p.139 of Barkley's Student Engagement Techniques (below) on the large projector screens as they walked into class, and the first few minutes of class were spent discussing whether or not they agreed with the summary presented in the pie chart.  
Average Retention Rates from Different Teaching Methods;
Pie chart from Barkley, 2010, p.139; data from Sousa, 2006, p.95
The discussion started with small groups, and then the students were invited to share what they heard from others at their table.  Comments about several "slices" of the pie were offered; the conversation started with the 4% average retention rate associated with reading and then it moved on to details coordinating with the audiovisual category.  When I prompted for some thoughts on the 2% average retention rate reported for lecture, a student courageously raised his hand, and I nervously awaited the response.  
"We decided that it depends on what happens after the lecture."
The relief washed over me when I heard this statement.  He continued:
"The lecture on Monday worked for us because we did something after it.  You know, something that used the information, so we could try it right away.  That helped us figure out whether we understood it or not."
It is one thing to read through the literature and to understand, as an instructor, the importance of this approach to teaching and learning, but it is even more powerful to hear this outlook directly from the students.

In hindsight, I often feel guilty for having lectures, even mini-lectures, prepared for anything since we meet in an Active Learning Classroom which, by its very design, presents challenges to the traditional lecture.  However, if those mini-lectures paired with activities are working for the students, then there is no need to avoid them.

Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Achieving "flow" with classroom activities

What factors affect whether or not students engage with an activity in the classroom?  The level of challenge associated with the activity is is one factor.  Another factor is the difficulty level of the coordinating content.  The combination of these two factors is also important.  If the activity and the content are both too easy, then students will be bored, disengaged.  If the challenge level of both the activity and the coordinating material are high, then students may give up or, worse, not even try.

The goal is for students to be engaged with the material through the activity.  This immersion is sometimes referred to as "flow" - I have been intrigued with the simplicity of this idea since hearing about it in a workshop a few weeks ago (see discussion, for example, in this short article from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley).  Joel, our workshop presenter, pointed out that "flow" can be achieved by balancing complex with simple.  There are two basic pairings for classroom activities: (1) complex material with a simple activity, and (2) a more complex activity with material that is relatively simple.  Using the "Active Learning Continuum" conceptual framework as discussed by Bonwell and Sutherland (1996), a simple activity is one that is short in length and relatively unstructured while a complex activity can be described as one that is highly structured and has a longer duration.
Conceptual framework known as the "Active Learning Continuum" introduced by Bonwell and Sutherland (1996).
Pairing Complex Material with a Simple Activity
If students are being asked to dig into brand new material as part of an activity, then it might be wise to select an activity with easy instructions and/or one with a short list of tasks.  Learning new material often requires close attention, so a relatively easy activity allows students to focus on learning the content instead of learning the steps required as part of the activity. Classic examples of activities that are not-too-complex include brainstorming sessions, Think-Pair-Share, structured discussions (in which questions are provided), and a short writing assignment, e.g., Minute Paper.

"Flow" is achieved when complex is balanced with simple.  Either a simple activity for complex material or a complex activity paired with relatively simple material.
Complex Activity Paired with Material that is Relatively Simple
Drawing on our own personal experiences and review are two occasions when material is, generally speaking, "simple."  These are the times to pull out the activities that require a great deal of time and/or structure, including concept mapping, presentations, and debates.  When the material is familiar, students can focus on completing the tasks associated with complex activities.  

The simplicity of "flow" combined with the research documenting its potential for deeper learning is powerful.  This is my first introduction to the work of psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who is credited with coining the term "flow," but I plan on digging in some more.  

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