Take the active learning challenge

Dear Instructors,

Here’s your challenge: Include active learning activities in every lecture.

Just do it.

Active learning is a philosophy and approach in which teaching moves beyond the ‘podium-style’ lecture and directly includes students in the learning process. There is certainly a big movement out there to include active learning in the classroom, there is evidence that it works, and active learning strategies have been around for a long time. Active learning can make learning experience more interactive, inclusive, and help embrace different learning styles. Active learning places the student in a more central role in a classroom, and allows students to engage with the course and course content in a different way.

So, why doesn’t everyone embrace active learning?

Without a doubt, it can take a bit of extra work. This post by Meghan Duffy provides an excellent case study, and illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of embracing a ‘flipped classroom’ in a large biology class, and part of that involves heaps of active learning strategies.

Active learning also involves some risk-taking, and perhaps risks that pre-tenure instructors should avoid. The strategies can remove some of the control of the instructor, and this can be uncomfortable for some teachers. For any active learning strategies to work, the instructor, and students, need to be on board, and each strategy brings some challenges, takes time to prepare, and certainly takes time in the classroom.

This term, in my 70+ student ecology class, I decided to take the active learning challenge, and, every lecture, include active learning*. I want to share a few of the things I have done so far, and hopefully show that some ideas are easy and doable, for pretty much any teaching context (note: I do use this book to help generate ideas)

1) The teacher becomes the student: for the last five minutes of class, I pretended to be a student, and asked the students to become the teacher. I then asked them some questions about the course content, drawing upon material from the last couple of lectures. Because I have taught the course for many years, I had a good sense of where some ‘problem areas’ may be, and thus formulated questions that got to the more difficult material. Students then were able to respond to my questions, and share their own expertise with the whole class.

2) Clear and muddy: at the end of one lecture, I asked the students to write down one part of the content they really understood well (the clear), and one area that might be “the muddiest point” (i.e., what they are struggling with). Students handed in the pieces of paper, and I went through and sorted them, and then spent part of the next lecture re-explaining common muddy areas. This was a terrific way to get anonymous feedback, helped reinforce areas that I perceived to be going well, and allowed me to target problem areas in the course.

Here's a "muddy" - this student's comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

Here’s a “muddy” – this student’s comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

3) Gather in groups: many active learning strategies work best when students are in groups. To quickly set up groups during class, each student holds a ‘card’ with different symbols, letters, numbers, and drawings, and when I call out one of these, the students form groups. I made the cards so students get sorted into groups of different sizes, depending on the activity.

 

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

An easy and effective active learning strategy with groups is to have student discuss among themselves a particular problem or question. After a few minutes, a spokesperson can report back their findings to the whole class. I’ve also had some students come to the front and present the result to the class. This does depend on having ‘enthusiastic’ volunteers, but I have not found this a barrier.

4) IF-AT cards: this term, I am trying to use Instant-feedback assessment-techniques for multiple choice questions. These cards allow students to scratch off answers on a card, and they immediately know if they are right and wrong, and can scratch a second or third time to receive partial points. I have used these in the classroom, for group work, and then students can work on problems (presented by me on the blackboard or screen), debate and discuss the answers, and then scratch off to reveal the correct answer. This activity therefore includes group work, problem solving, discussion and debate, and instant feedback. It does take a little bit of time (20 minutes or so, for a few questions), but is an effective active learning strategy that combines learning with an instant-feedback style of assessment.

5) Pair and share: this is also a simple and effective way to get discussions happening in lecture. I pose a question or idea, and simply have students turn to their neighbour to discuss the answer. I then ask some of the pairs to share their answers or ideas, and I also divide the lecture hall into different sections and ask pairs from each section to report back. This allows full use of the space in the classroom and students at the backs, fronts, or sides are able to feel included.

All of the abovementioned strategies don’t actually take that long and do not require a major overhaul to the course or course content. I believe they are relatively risk-free and easy, and suitable for any instructor, pre-tenure or not. I see these kinds of active learning strategies more as ‘value added’ activities, and as small steps that can increase student engagement in the classroom.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that's a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that’s a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

 

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* Full disclosure: so far I have succeeded in all but one lecture, and I’m eleven lectures in. I’ll post an update at the end of term, to let you know if I’m successful all term!

Leading a discussion of a scientific paper

I’m teaching a graduate class in Entomology this term, and part of that class involves students leading discussions about scientific papers in our discipline. These discussions are typically between 60 and 90 minutes, with a small group (4-6 individuals). This post provides some advice and guidelines around how to go about doing this. That being said, this is not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of world, especially when talking about science: you may have better or alternative approaches when discussing scientific papers – please comment, and share your ideas!

1. Provide a (quick) summary of the paper:

In most cases, you want to first provide the audience a brief but accurate overview of the paper. It’s often useful to do a little research about the authors – this provides a context that may be very helpful and may prove insightful later on. For example, do the authors have a publication record that aligns with the current paper? Are the authors graduate students or post-doc (not that it matters, but it does provide context!).

The focus on the summary should be about the Research Questions / Hypothesis, and to explain these you will also need to discuss an overall conceptual framework. This means you need to know this conceptual framework very well. After providing the broader context and framework, you should quickly go over the main methods, and the key results. You should act as a guide for your audience, and take them through the key results. Try not to spend a lot of time on more trivial aspects of a paper. In general, your summary should not delve too deeply in the discussion part of the paper.

Don’t forget: you are assuming everyone in the room has read the paper, so your overall introduction should be relatively short (no more than 10 minutes). More time may be required if a concept or methodological approach is particularly complex. Try not to provide opinions or critiques of the paper at this point in time – save this for the general discussion.

2. Ask for points of clarification:

Before proceeding with detailed discussion of the paper, you should ask the audience if they require clarification on anything in the paper. You are leading a discussion and therefore considered an ‘expert’ on the paper, and as such, should be prepared to handle these points of clarification – this will most likely require you to do a bit of research on areas of the paper that you do not understand!  It’s important you you make it clear that you are not starting a detailed critique (yet); you are first making sure that people all understand the critical ‘nuts and bolts’ of the paper.

3. Leading a discussion:

The majority of the time should be spent on the actual discussion.  There are many ways to do this, but here are some tips:

  • Try not to let your own opinion of the paper distract or take over – your goal is to get other people to reveal their own views; these may or may not agree with your own views! Be welcoming and accommodating to other people’s opinions and viewpoints. Never make anyone feel small or stupid, even if they make a goofy mistake.
  • That being said, make sure that you do have an opinion, and be willing to share it at some point
  • Prepare a list of questions that you could ask other people if the discussion needs help to get started. Always try to find positive points in a paper, even if the paper is, overall, very weak. Similarly, try to bring out negative features even if the paper is strong.  This means you have to sort out strong and negative parts of a paper for yourself (well ahead of time)
  • It’s sometimes a good idea to first go around the room and ask for something that people felt was strong and positive about the paper, and then do this again but ask for points of constructive criticism about the paper.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask people (specifically) for their views on some sections of this paper: a gentle push may be needed to get started on discussing the specifics, but this can be fruitful.
  • Since you are chairing the discussion, don’t be afraid to take control if the discussion wanders too far from where it needs to be, and/or if the discussion gets too trivial or mired in the weeds
  • Related, whenever possible, draw the discussion back to the actual research objectives, and try to broaden the discussion out to the overarching concenptual framework: are the results generalizable to other fields? Does the paper make broad and meaningful conclusions that will be long-lived and significant?
  • Towards the end of the discussion, it may be useful to ask people how they might have done the work differently. Or, stated another way, what could have been improved?

4. Summarize the discussion:

Spend the last five minutes of your time reminding people abou the actual research objectives, and provide a concise summary of the discussion that just wrapped up. Do this in an inclusive way, and give a nod to everyone in the room: make everyone feel that their points of views and opinions are taken seriously.   Try to get an overall consensus about the general quality of the paper, and one litmus test may be whether or not you would cite the paper in your own work, and in what context.

Homage to the squished mosquito

This work comes from a student* in my field biology class. Part of the course includes students keeping a “field journal“, and that assignment allows an opportunity for students to express their thoughts and observations about nature in many different ways, from writing, to art, and poetry.

 

A mosquito, before the squish. (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A mosquito, before the squish. (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

 

O squished mosquito, you omnivorous parasite,

Why could nectar not quench your hunger, like your male counterpart?

Why must you thirst for my blood?

 

Of course, you need blood for egg production,

But to what lengths will you go to continue your lineage?

Was it my personality that drew you in? Or simply my CO2 expulsion?

 

Your ultimate death has left me with no answers;

Only a bump on my skin filled with histamine and regret.

 

Your short life makes me itch to know more about who you were

…or perhaps that’s just the anticoagulant in your saliva.

 

While the swelling in my arm may decrease,

My pining for you never will.

 

R.I.P., mosquito

2014-2014

Mosquito

 

What does this poem tell me, as an instructor?

It tells me that students can express natural history and biology in many different ways.

It makes me think that the student will remember the basics of mosquito biology a lot more than had this been on a multiple choice or short-answer examination.

It shows the power of allowing emotion to find its tendrils into science. We ought to embrace this a lot more.

 

*the student shall remain nameless until after the course is finished, but will eventually be credited appropriately

Teaching with mobile technology: seeking help!

I need your help!

Tomorrow I’m attending a conference on Education Technologies, and I will be giving a talk about using mobile technology, and social media tools, in ‘out of the classroom’ environments.  I am excited about the opportunity and I welcome the chance to discuss the topic, highlighting my field biology course as a case study.  Here’s an overview of what I will discuss:

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 12.51.25 PM

As part of this talk, I would like to engage a broader community of educators, using social media tools.  More specifically, if you have comments or ideas on some of the discussion questions (below), please comment on this post, or tweet at me, or use the twitter hashtag #EdTechMobile to give your perspective. (Note: For ‘real time’ interaction, you can tweet using that hashtag between 330-415 PM (Eastern) on 5 March)

Here are the discussion questions:

1) What are the challenges and opportunities when using social media tools in the classroom?

2) How might mobile technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets) facilitate learning? How might it interfere?

3) How might the approach of linking ‘out of class’ learning environments with mobile technology and social media tools be adapted for other teaching environments? (i.e., other than University-level, the context in which I have used these tools).

Thanks, everyone!

Social media in higher education: a teaching and learning project

This term I will be spending some time with Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) at McGill: instead of doing my normal winter teaching, TLS is offering me a home for 2-3 days a week to work on projects with them. This is an outstanding opportunity as it provides real and significant time to work on teaching innovation. In my opinion, teaching in higher education should constantly be evaluated and re-assessed, and all Professors (regardless of career stage) should be supported and encouraged to improve, change and innovate their teaching. However, I would argue that many institutions put more attention on research productivity rather than supporting teaching innovation.  This is not to say that Universities don’t value teaching, but rather an argument that promotion is often weighted more towards research productivity than developing innovative approaches to teaching. There is also sometimes a culture by which Professors are unwilling to change anything about their teaching because of fears related to how this might affect teaching evaluation scores.  I have written previously about barriers to teaching innovation, and another barrier is that Professors aren’t typically supported to take time away from other duties to work on projects related to teaching and learning. Sabbaticals, for example, are mostly about re-inventing or re-tooling a research program and less often about pedagogy.  Over the past several years I had these kinds of discussions with various TLS colleagues, and the result is that I now have meaningful support to invest some of my time and energy towards teaching innovation. Bravo, TLS! I’m delighted to be spending time with you this term! (and a sincere thanks to my Chair and Faculty for supporting this endeavour).

It’s fitting that I’m using a blog to discuss the main project I’ll be delving into this term, because it will be all about the use of social media tools in teaching and learning. The way that we teach is changing, in part because there are countless new tools to use; tools that may help with interactions among students or between instructor and students, or tools that help us interact with dynamic, ever-changing content.  It can, however, be overwhelming. There’s an onslaught of technologies (….clickers, video-conferences, tablets, smart-boards and more) as well as countless on-line tools (… Facebook, Google hangouts, blogs, twitter, on-line discussions, etc). How do we make sense of this? How do we incorporate the correct tools into our courses in an effective and productive manner? What ethical or privacy issues must we understand when using some of these tools in the classroom?

My project will try to make sense of all of this, and over the next several months, I will be reading, talking, tweeting, blogging, seeking, sending, writing (and more).  I will be looking to the literature to assess the ways that social media tools can be used effectively in the classroom; I will survey current practices at various institutions, including McGill. At the end of the day, I hope to produce a dynamic ‘document’ to be shared and used by all those who are interested. This document will cover best practices, provide some case-studies and examples, and provide some guidelines about effective use of social media tools in teaching and learning.

Now I shall ask for help: Please let me know about the sorts of social media tools you use in the classroom. Drop me an e-mail, or comment (below), or tweet at me. I hoping to gather examples from a range of disciplines, using a range of tools, in a range of settings (small seminar classes, large courses, field courses, labs). Send me papers you might have written, or links that I’ll need to look at. The products from this project will only be strong if a community can be involved in its development, from the start.

Thanks everyone: this will be a terrific project, and thanks again to TLS and McGill for supporting this project..

Tablets in the forest: using mobile technology in Higher Education

I am pleased to present a publication that came out earlier this week in Educause Review On-line. This article resulted from a pilot project done in Fall 2012, in which students in my field biology class at McGill used tablets to enhance experiential learning.  Authors on the paper included colleagues from Teaching and Learning Services at McGill (Adam Finkelstein and Laura Winer), and PhD student Crystal Ernst.

Here are the ‘take away’ messages from the project:

  • Environmental biology students mobile devices to gather rich data in the field and to support learning through real-time interaction with their instructor and the larger research community.
  • The project included an analysis of survey and interview data to determine the impact of tablet use on student engagement once the project was complete.
  • Students recognized the value of the tablets as a research tool; however, the tablets’ most important contribution to learning was the real-time communication and feedback they enabled between students, instructors, and the scientific community.
A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

Stated another way, tablets are wonderful to use, and can be effective tools in a field biology course, but the students felt connectivity (which facilitated communication) was essential: the mobile WIFI units paired with the tablets made the project successful.  Here’s a quote from the paper to further illustrate that point:  “most students (53 percent) reported that the tablets increased their interaction with the instructor and TA. This was corroborated by their responses on tool use: 72 percent of students thought that live communication with the instructor and TA helped develop their skills.”

I previously highlighted a video from that project on social media use in the class, and the video (below) is more specifically about the use of the tablets in the class.

This work was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba Canada, and Bell Mobility helped us with mobile WIFI units.  I am immensely thankful for the support and I am truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year.

Why undergraduate students are teaching my entomology course

This term I’m teaching an introductory Entomology course at McGill. These days, however, I’m not lecturing at all – the students are doing the teaching. For the past couple of weeks, and for the next couple of weeks, groups of students are lecturing on the part of the course called ‘overview of the insect Orders‘. Typically, this section of the class is a little dry for one person to teach – it’s a standard series of lectures on the Insect Orders – and covers the  evolution, phylogeny, biology, ecology and economic importance of the Insect Orders, starting with Collembola and moving through to the ‘Big Four’ – the Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera and Coleoptera.

This term, I decided to turn the tables, and students became the professors. They provided me ideas on what Orders they were most interested in, and based on their feedback, I assigned them to groups and scheduled who would teach what. I also provided them a detailed outline of what was expected. This is not a trivial task – preparing lectures, and lecturing, takes an incredible amount of preparation and time and energy. These lectures are graded (with a rubric), and thus in addition to the peer/instructor pressure for students, this part of the course is part of their final grade.

Here are some refections about the process, so far:

Perhaps what has struck me most with this experience is that the students are delving into the content to a level that I would not have done on my own – in part because I simply would not have the time if I was lecturing on all the Orders. The students, by becoming ‘experts’ on a topic, have more time to dig out the most interesting and fascinating facts about the Orders. They are hunting down the true controversies surrounding the systematics of different Orders, and presenting them like seasoned veterans.  They are taking ownership over the topics, and with such ownership comes responsibility, and pride.

Lecturing is so much different than the typical short-format presentations that students are used to. They have plenty of experience giving presentations to their instructors and peers, but these are seldom more than 15 or 20 minutes. Filling up 50 minutes is a very different ball game. It requires a different set of presentation skills – skills related to thinking on your feet, preparing for unanticipated questions from the audience, and experience with a more spontaneous form of science communication. In my experience, these skills are seldom developed during an undergraduate student’s academic program.

What is also evident with this process is that the students are having FUN with the content and FUN with the lectures. They are linking to the best videos and images for their Order – they are challenging each other with who can find the most fascinating facts about a particular Order. They are smiling, laughing, and genuinely passionate about what they are presenting.  They are also deeply supportive of each other – they ask good and fair questions, engage with the content, work to make the experience positive for everyone. (by the way, I have been tweeting some of the fun facts from this course using the hashtag #ENTO330 - please follow along!)

The education literature supports the ideas I have written above, and the overall process is defined as ‘peer teaching‘.  As the title of Whitman and Fife’s report states “to teach is to learn twice”  , and although caution is warranted when executing peer-teaching, that report does highlight the fact that learning can occur effectively under peer-teaching scenarios. More recent literature from Dioso-Henson (2012)  shows that “reciprocal peer tutoring” (i.e., students run tutorials instead of instructors) “produced significantly larger academic gains than traditional classroom instruction“.  Those interested in delving into the Education literature on this topic should see Topping’s (1996) article.

Now, what I have not provided here is any perspectives from the students, and Graham Scott correctly pointed this out to me. Once the course is over, I will bookend this post with another post containing some refections from students. It’s important to see whether or not my positivity is a reality from their perspective! So, stay tuned for that!

In sum, we often talk about Higher Education being about teaching and learning, with the assumption that the teaching is done by a Professor and the learning is done by the student. Peer teaching, I believe, is a valuable method by which undergraduate students can be fully immersed in the process. The learner can become the teacher and this makes the experience so much richer, for everyone.

Instructors: please contact me if you want more details on this process. I will be happy to share the details – assignment overview, grading rubric, etc.

References:

Topping, K.J. 1996. The effectiveness of peer tutoring in further and higher education: A typology and review of the literature. Higher Education 32(3): 321-345.

Dioso-Henson, L. (2012). The effect of reciprocal peer tutoring and non-reciprocal peer tutoring on The performance of students in college physics. Research In Education, 87(1), 34-49.

Whitman, N.A. & Fife, J.D. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.