Thursday, February 20, 2014

Use of class time in an active learning classroom

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) is facilitating a Community of Practice series for active learning instructors this semester.  The meetings provide an opportunity for the instructors to get together to discuss activity ideas, students working in groups, classroom challenges, strategies for student engagement - plus anything else that comes up.

Our series kicked off last week with a group of instructors who are currently teaching in the new Centennial Hall active learning classrooms.  To get the conversation started, I threw out the question I wanted to be sure the group had time to discuss:

Student "pods" in one of Centennial Hall's
active learning classrooms
What is happening in the active learning classroom that is different from what typically happens in a traditional classroom?

The instructors all settled on an important observation as the starting point for this discussion... the students and what they are working on in their groups (pods) is the focus.  This is certainly a change from a lecture hall where the instructor, and what is happening at the front of the classroom, is the focal point.  All agreed that this shift necessitates change in the way the class period is structured; this has been documented elsewhere by other campuses with active learning spaces (see this discussion from the U of M, for example), but a discovery of any kind always resonates a bit more when it hits closer to home.

The transition to teaching in an active learning classroom is likely to be easier for instructors who frequently ask students to work in groups compared with those who primarily focus on delivering content through lecture since the setup of the active learning rooms lends itself better to group work.  Each of the instructors present for our first meeting acknowledged the need to work with the classroom environment; trying to continue on with in-class content delivery through lecture in one of these active learning spaces is likely to be a losing battle since students' focus is not on the instructor.

This transition takes time, and each instructor is at a different point in the transition process.  One of the participating instructors, Erin Devlin, taught one day per week in an active learning classroom during the fall semester, and, as a result, she has already developed a handful of in-class activities that work well for this type of classroom environment.  For others, this is the first semester that they have had an opportunity to teach in a space that is conducive to group work (a lecture hall with stadium seating and fixed chairs presents certain hurdles for students working in groups!), so it will take time to develop ideas for utilizing the new space.  A series of ideas and examples will be shared in future posts in an effort to help with this process.

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