Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Active learning advice - from students to students

The end of the term is a natural time for reflection.  During our last face-to-face meeting of the semester, I asked the students to discuss their active learning experiences with their small groups and then post advice to be shared with fellow students on a Padlet wall.  Advice is always more powerful when it comes from peers.  So, here it is, straight from students who have made it through the active learning trenches:
Student-to-student advice for classes based on active learning.
I am grateful to each and every one of them for being adventurous and their willingness to try new things.  Thank you, students - the class wouldn't have been the same without your input, suggestions, questions, or participation!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Options for students reporting out in class

There wasn't a class period that went by without the students working together in their small groups.  Having at least a couple of options for having the students/groups report out to the class has been indispensable.  Here is a rundown of what we used for reporting out in the classroom this semester:

Whiteboards located at each pod.  
The whiteboards are extremely helpful for brainstorming, making lists, etc. that we will refer to later in the class period.  I tend to ask the groups to write on the whiteboards when our goal is to compile the most complete list possible and/or when it is helpful for us to compare and contrast what the different groups have offered - these are great excuses for the students to roam around the room too.  As the instructor, I love being able to glance around the room and have a visual confirmation that we are ready to move on.
Google Forms 
A glimpse of a group assignment in a Google Form.
Quick and easy to set up.  I ended up using Google Forms later in the semester to collect some group work assignments completed during the class period.  Most of the time, these are a few questions that build on an individual assignment; the groups answer the questions together, and then we debrief as a whole class - the debriefing session is easy to do because the groups' Google Forms submissions are collected in a spreadsheet (Google Sheets) that I can look over quickly at the teacher station. 
A blank canvas with a lot of potential!  We used Padlet a handful of times this semester to collect responses to a variety of prompts (one such example is discussed in this post).  I love how easy it is to set up a blank wall; with the default privacy settings, I can simply provide students with the URL/link, and students can contribute by simply double-clicking on the wall to add a post.  Students love seeing the contributions from their peers popping up in real time.  Plus, it is so easy to share links, documents, embed videos, add images, etc.   
Sets include either 40 or 63 unique Plicker cards.

We tried this out for this first time this week, and there is something magical about Plickers.  For anyone looking for a simple, free way to collect student responses to multiple choice and true/false questions, Plickers is worth a try.  The instructor is the only one who needs a smartphone or tablet with the Plickers app, making it a nice alternative to PollEverywhere and Socrative for classrooms that don't require each student to have a mobile device.  I decided to start out simple and printed out eight Plicker cards - one for each group; I was amazed at how easily the app scanned each QR code but quickly learned that the students wanted confirmation that I wasn't taking pictures as I used my iPad to scan the Plicker cards around the room.  Next time, I will be sure to explain what is happening on the iPad (or iPhone or Android device) before I start scanning the room.  Once we cleared that hurdle, the students were really into it.  I look forward to trying this in a larger class setting.     
Good ol' fashioned paper!  
I keep a stack of sticky notes in my folder to use for quick, short responses to impromptu questions.  Even in a classroom filled with technology, sometimes a small piece of paper can be a helpful tool.  At least once a week I find myself asking the students/groups questions that I didn't anticipate in advance, so scribbling a quick response on a sticky note helps us to move the class period forward in the most helpful way.
There are definitely other tools out there!  See the recent blog post from Richard Byrne on FreeTech4Teachers.com for his use of and perspective on Google Forms, Padlet, and Plickers as well as PollEverywhere and Socrative.

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.