Despite the dusting of snow on the ground in Everett this morning (and a few lingering flakes falling outside my window at this very moment), it’s officially the first day of the spring quarter here at EvCC. That means a new set of classes–and new opportunities to try out ways of engaging your students from the very first moment of class.
With that in mind, here’s a question for you to consider as you start each of your new classes this week: How do you engage students and welcome them into the intellectual and practical work of the next ten weeks?
I have (not so fond) memories of staying mostly one step ahead of my students that year, prepping the material I was supposed to cover the next day. Despite the fact that I had just graduated from college and thought I was fully prepared to stand in front of students and share my “wisdom,” it wasn’t until I was teaching the material that I really began to get a deep understanding of it! You could say that I was actively learning that year. And actually several years after that as I taught more and different math courses, and when I began teaching college math courses it started all over again!
I just read an article by Neil Haave, Associate Professor of Biology at The University of Alberta Augustana Campus, who was considering the issue of actively learning after he implemented an activity in a class that required very little of him and quite a lot of his students. In other words, he had them do active learning in his class. All of the important facts had been covered in previous classes, and now it was time for students to begin synthesizing; he was pleased that students were really actively engaged in the material. Haave says, “This (activity) produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.”
So there’s the rub. So many of us prefer the Sage on the Stage approach rather than the Guide on the Side position. When we are teaching/lecturing, we begin to know and understand the material differently (and deeply) from when we were students ourselves, and that feels good. At some point we are no longer a step or two ahead of the students. But when we move away from the podium (literal or figurative) and let the students have a larger role in their learning, it does begin to feel a bit like we aren’t teaching. Coincidentally, students may report that they think you aren’t teaching anymore either! Perhaps you’ve even had student comments like that on your end-of-course evaluations, similar to what Haave did: “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!”
So how has Haave’s view of what’s happening in the classroom changed since he became an active learning instructor? He writes that, “I am now learning which concepts trip up my students and how I can guide them through those bottlenecks. I’m also learning how to help them reflect on the misconceptions that prevent them from grasping the material at a deep level.”
Have you tried active learning techniques in your classes? What was the outcome? Many times I have tried new things and have experienced some degree of failure, only to discover that my directions were not clear or I hadn’t adequately prepared students for the work I anticipated they would be able to do. In reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, I recognize that most of the time I didn’t adequately prepare. Now, however, I have a few “back pocket techniques” (remember James Lang telling us in Small Teaching that we should always have a couple of activities that we can pull out of our back pocket when we want to turn things around without a complete overhaul?) that I like to use. Case studies is one, presenting students with “wicked problems” that often have no right answer. I also use Pass the Problem when I want students to get up and move while they are working together. At the conclusion of both of these activities I ask students to reflect on what they’ve learned. We’ve mentioned helping students to reflect on their learning in this blog before, and will continue to think of it as one of the most important ways to help students actively learn the material.
If you want to learn more techniques for bringing active learning to your classroom, be sure to let us know.
Have you been to a conference or a meeting on campus recently where the word innovation WASN’T used? It seems to be a buzzword not just in the halls of academia but in the business world as well. What does it mean to be innovative, and how do we incorporate innovations into our teaching practices?
Dictionary.com defines the verb to innovate as: tointroducesomethingnew;makechangesinanythingestablished. Does innovation mean revolution? No – it can mean small changes, incremental changes, to your daily work. Think Small Teaching by James Lang, a book I wrote about in an early post. Lang writes about “back pocket techniques” that you can have at the ready to enhance student learning. I wish I had known that innovations could be small when I first started teaching.
In my first several years in the classroom I struggled to “get things right” and when things started to go smoothly, I did what many of us do: I rested on my laurels. At that point I was mostly concerned about covering the material each day and not evidence of student learning. Since then I have taken to heart this quote by 19th Century Clergyman William Pollard, “Learning and innovation go hand-in-hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday is sufficient for tomorrow.”
So, it’s not critical that you re-invent your course or yourself. What about starting with one small task next week? Yes, planning for innovation is a good way to make sure it happens. Consider this: On Monday, start class with this activity. Say to students: Before I introduce the next topic to explore in class, please find a partner and discuss the big topics we have learned so far. Make a list and be ready to describe how they are related.
Opening class with a “retrieval” activity will let you know how well students have actually learned the material, and is a great way to help students to see the big picture of the topics in the course. I should note that the first time you introduce an activity like this you may be surprised how difficult it is for students. I can tell you from experience that not all my innovative practices were a resounding success! Don’t throw away an activity just because it doesn’t work as well as you’d like the first time around.
Are there innovative practices that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!
I was recently asked for recommendations on simple, easy, real-time polling applications that could be used in a classroom or lecture setting to prompt discussion. I made a couple recommendations based on what I’ve observed faculty using recently, but in doing so I realized it had been some time since I’d looked at the current crop of contenders in the classroom polling realm. These types of tools come and go–what was popular last year is always in danger of being supplanted by some new contender–and so I spent a little time investigating a couple current options.