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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Countdown for course prep: one month to go!

August is here, which means that the fall term is right around the corner.  My mind seems to be constantly churning through ideas - course design, syllabus language, activities for the classroom, assignment options, etc.  I am ready to get some of the ideas down on paper to free up some brain resources!

I first laid eyes on McKeachie's Teaching Tips earlier this year (wish it would've been sooner - such a great resource!) and there on the first page of the table of contents is the breakdown of a chapter titled "Countdown for Course Preparation."  At the time, I made a mental note to return to this chapter when planning my fall course and experienced a moment of slight panic this morning upon realizing that the chapter kicks off with some tasks to complete three months prior to the course start date.  Luckily the course, Econometrics, is one I have taught before, so the wave of panic subsided once I realized that I have completed most of the tasks, which include identifying student learning goals and procuring any resources students will need for the course.  Next in line is the course syllabus; the recommendation in McKeachie's is to construct the syllabus two months prior before the first class meeting.  I have a draft put together, but I am interested in adding a statement about active learning (see examples gathered by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Boise State available here) and a graphic that shows how we will move through the material plus, more importantly, connections between topics and learning goals/objectives.  (If supplementing a syllabus with a graphic is new to you too, check out this post on the ProfHacker blog, Maryellen Weimer's take on it in this Teaching Professor blog entry, and, if you are also an economics instructor, "The Syllabus Evolved: Extended Graphic Syllabi for Economics Courses" by Sauer and Calimeris.)

Since the fall semester is just about one month away, McKeachie's recommends:
  • planning for class meetings,
  • selecting appropriate teaching methods, and
  • selecting appropriate technology.
For me, decisions in one category tend to affect decisions related to the other categories.  The fall class is hybrid (blended) with our face-to-face meetings scheduled in an active learning classroom.  So, we will be using both a learning management system (D2L) and technology located in the classroom; since we have computers and large monitors for each group available to us while in class, then our face-to-face meetings can include data analysis, online scavenger hunts, consultations of online resources, constructing visuals, etc.  The active learning rooms are set up so that students are working in groups by default, so I am paying close attention to group-based learning methods as I construct plans for the face-to-face meetings and select the best environment - online, face-to-face, or both - for each activity.  I will continue to work on these over the upcoming weeks and then check in again at the two week and one week (before the first class) marks, which are the upcoming checkpoints in the countdown for course preparation include.

In all the books and resources I have skimmed or read, the timeline approach to course prep in McKeachie's stands out to me as being unique.  Do you know of other resources out there that also offer timing-related recommendations for preparing upcoming courses?

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.