This is the third in a collection of posts about topics covered in “A Learner-Centered Approach to Effective Teaching,” a workshop series offered by the UC Davis Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). By writing these posts, I hope to solidify my grasp of the topics covered and provide useful information for the college teaching community.
Think about how you would teach someone to change a tire on a bicycle.
I would probably talk through the process with the person, answering questions as we went. Then I would demonstrate how the process works on one wheel, and ask the person to try changing the tire on the other wheel. What I probably wouldn’t do is show the person a series of slides on how to change a tire and then ask them to come back in a month to try it out for themselves. The first approach, which I think is much more natural, is an example of active learning – the student is constructing knowledge as they go and actually tries to solve a problem. The second approach is an example of passive learning, where the student simply receives the information from the instructor without really engaging with it.
Due to reasons of tradition and cost-effectiveness, many college courses are taught in a very passive way – students sit in large lecture halls and listen as a professor spends 50 minutes talking at them about a particular subject. Even though many professors are good orators and put a lot of effort into making their presentations, this approach is ineffective for many students. Anyone who has sat in on a large lecture class can attest to this – for every student that is paying attention and taking notes, there is another that is doodling, staring off into space, or dozing off.
Using active learning techniques can help turn this situation around. A large body of evidence, synthesized nicely by this recent PNAS meta study on college STEM courses, has shown that using active learning approaches significantly improves student learning. Clearly, the one-on-one approach used in the bicycle example above won’t work for even a relatively small class, let alone a large lecture. Here are some active learning techniques that can be used in larger settings:
This is an approach that I developed to use during wrap-up discussions in my BIS2C lab sections, which typically have 24 students each. For each lab, I develop a set of 12 questions that address the major learning outcomes of the lab. At the end of the lab, I ask students to pair off and play rock-paper-scissors. Each student that loses has to answer one of my 12 questions. I like this approach because it’s fun, eliminates the need to call students out to answer questions, and ensures that I am not biased in whom I call on to answer questions. One potential issue to anticipate is that some students, particularly those from other countries, may not be familiar with the rock-paper-scissors game and will need a few minutes to learn it.
This is a modification of an idea presented in the AITC workshop, where it was suggested to conclude a lecture by having students write down and share what they thought the key points of the lecture were. I think this would be more effective as a beginning of lecture activity, with the students writing down and sharing what they remember as key points from the previous class. A fun alternative that would appeal to visual learners is “Picasso in the Classroom,” where students think of a key visual image that stood out to them from the previous lecture, draw the image on a piece of paper, and then share.
Instant polling, typically using the iClicker system, is now widely used in large lecture courses. Depending on how they are used, clickers can serve as more of an assessment tool or more of an active learning tool. To use clickers to promote active learning, pose challenging questions to the students and allow them to discuss the problem with their neighbor for a few minutes before answering. (See my post on formative assessments for some ideas about how to write effective, thought-provoking clicker questions.) If the cost of clickers is problematic for many of your students, you can consider using a cellphone-based alternative, such as Poll Everywhere.
A classic technique for active learning, think-pair-share is exactly what it sounds like. Give the students a minute to consider a problem, then have them discuss it with a neighbor, and then have a few groups share their thoughts with the class. I think that a big benefit of this approach is that it allows students to get some validation from a peer, which should increase their willingness to raise their hand and jump in on a discussion.
Quartering the lecture
This is another method suggested in the CETL workshop. It involves splitting the class in smaller sections and then spending a set amount of time during lecture engaging exclusively with each section. I like this approach because it can make a big lecture feel smaller and ensures that I’m teaching to all of the students (even the ones in the back corner).
There are many more techniques available to achieve active learning. I chose these because I like them and have either used them or plan to try them. Please comment below if you have any favorite active learning methods you would like to share.