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.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Planning for the first day of an active learning class

I have long believed that the first day of class is an opportunity to set the tone for the upcoming semester.  Ideally, the class environment will be one that fosters collaboration, discovery, and deep, meaningful learning.  Even with this outlook in place, figuring out what to do on that first day is often a challenge.  Sometimes there can even be a couple of hurdles to overcome. Class enrollment, for example, is often still in flux as students drop and add classes at the beginning of the term.  Student expectations can be another - how many of them will show up with the hope that they can hear a little bit about the syllabus and then leave?

An advanced apology to any of those students enrolled in my class this fall; it is highly unlikely that I will be reading the syllabus to you on the first day of class.  Will we take a look at it?  Probably.  If we do, it will likely be as part of an activity that asks you to work as part of a team.  A scavenger hunt-type activity, perhaps.  But there is a word of warning that comes along with that too.  You may have to generate your own list of things to look for first.  (I used to try to anticipate students' questions in designing this sort of activity, but doesn't it make more sense for students to get their actual questions answered?)  Hopefully the activity ends up sparking some discussion - maybe even some revisions to the syllabus too - which is perfect because the rest of the semester is likely to follow suit.

Sharing information about the course and addressing any potential anxieties related to expectations are both important for the first day, but I will probably kick things off with a different type of activity.  I prefer to pull out the syllabus later on after we have had a chance to break the ice and get a start on building community.  This is the tough part for me.  While others can pull off the light-hearted, sometimes silly, icebreakers, my heart just isn't in it, and I have no doubt the students can tell.  Instead, I am on the hunt for an activity that breaks the ice but also has a strong connection to the class.  Sometimes I try out an activity that connects with a key course concept, like the Candy Trading Game for an introductory-level economics course, but I may focus more on the learning environment this time around.  For example, I am interested in trying something similar to the Rainbow Mixer Little Idea for Teaching (LIFT) from the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Illinois State.  It reminds me of the Reciprocal Interview activity outlined in Teaching at its best by Linda B. Nilson but with the added encouragement for students to meet and chat with others located elsewhere in the classroom (that is, outside the groups they are already seated in).  Either activity provides the students with an opportunity to provide input about and influence the class environment, which is what I am most interested in.  It may even provide us with a decent segue into the brainstorming session for the syllabus scavenger hunt.

Both of the activities outlined above could easily fill a 50-minute class meeting, but I am hoping to streamline things and reserve the last 5-10 minutes for an exercise that highlights - and gets us started with - the applicability of the course material.  We'll see how things go!  Overall, I will be pleased if we can accomplish the following on the first day: breaking the ice, exchanging information, and building community; the three provide a solid foundation for what is to come this semester.

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.