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.

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!

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.

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.  This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success.

One of the ‘products’ of this pilot project is this 5 minute video about using social media to engage students in inquiry-based 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. This is terrific, and as the video illustrates, the students end up benefiting.

This term, the course is again using social media, and you can find details in this post, and follow along with twitter using the hashtag #ENVB222.

Hear This! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education

It’s the week before classes start at McGill University. Professors are getting course outlines ready, and thinking about ways to assess students. In this post (first published over at the Inquiry Network Blog of McGill), I explore the idea of using podcasts as an assessment tool… 

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrolment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as a student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

Kids Like Bugs: entomology outreach in elementary schools (Part 2)

     On Wednesday, Chris Buddle and Paul Manning posted the first of a two-part series on outreach activities in elementary schools. That post focused on the ‘why’ - this one (also written by Chris and Paul) is about the ‘how’.

How to talk to kids about bugs:

First thing about talking to elementary school kids is stay calm and don’t worry!  If you have any University-level training in Entomology, you are qualified – Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be able to speak about all aspects of entomology: play to your strengths! If you are a taxonomists working on Syrphidae flies, bring in your flies and talk about them these magnificent animals.  If your experience is broader and less specialized, browse some notes, look on-line, or peek at a textbook: do a short overview of the main Orders of insects and their characteristics. Although most kids get some entomology in elementary schools, it’s not usually very much (although ALL kids do seem to learn about monarch butterflies!).

One great way to speak to kids about bugs is to make the session thematic.  In addition to bringing in a drawer or two of insects, link the specimens to biology. For example, one of us (Paul) has recently used ‘metamorphosis’ as a focal point for discussion. The transition from larvae to adult is a biological wonder, and acts as an excellent focal point for discussion. It brings together different facets of biology, from hormones, to physiological development, behavioural adaptations, through to discussion about life history strategies.  Paul brought galls into the classroom, and demonstrated that there were larvae living inside. The students screamed with excitement when they saw the larvae living within the gall. One student described it as a ‘cute white blob‘. Several students asked if they could bring the larvae home (wouldn’t Mom and Dad just LOVE that!).

Kids like bugs. And they like to draw them.

Kids like bugs. And they like to draw them.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”.  In fact, kids find it refreshing to hear that an ‘expert’ doesn’t know all the answers.  Turn it around to illustrate that the world of entomology is so vast that there are a lot of unknowns out there, and many questions still to be answered.

Have patience. With younger grades, asking kids questions, or having them answer questions, can quickly turn into ‘stories’ from young, enthusiastic students. For example:

Q: Does anyone know what kind of insect a ladybug is?

        [Hand shoots into the air…]

 A (from a 6 year old): Um, yes, I know a lot about those things.  Once, when I was 4, I remember that I saw a beautiful bug flying by my garden – it was really big and black and I think it was a ladybug and my granddad told me about how ones like that eat trees and kill the trees and that makes me sad because we have a big tree in our front yard that I really like but sometimes my little bratty brother hides behind it and scares me when I am walking by. But I really like all bugs especially ladybug ones that are red but they smell funny sometimes and my mom said they can bite – will they bite me if I play with them? why do they smell funny? why are there so many spots on them? do their spots get bigger when they grow….

Give kids a chance to tell you these stories, but know that it will take patience…. but heck, if bugs get them talking and excited, that can’t be a bad thing!

(as an aside, most elementary school teachers will typically coach students so that they will ask/answer question instead of tell stories)

Bring a few props: If you can do an event outdoors, try to bring a few sweep nets and vials.  We will often bring extra vials from the lab and give students the vials to keep (heck, plastic vials cost very little!). For MONTHS afterwards, parents will often tell us about how their child packed that vial full of insects and carried it around obsessively for weeks. That’s a great way to inspire entomology.

Beetle galleries are easily found in wood, and can be a great prop to bring to an entomology session with school kids.

If you are doing an indoor talk, make sure to have a lot of photographs of interesting insects, and whenever possible, discuss/show or use examples from your local fauna – this will allow kids to connect to things they have seen on the playground or in their own yards – this connection between the content you are discussing and the insects they are seeing on their own, is very powerful.  With a smaller group, you can certainly bring in a few drawers of insects – if you don’t have any, this becomes a great excuse to make a little synoptic collection of your own to use for educational purposes. Or, ask your local entomology museum, or local naturalist club, about borrowing some specimens.

Whenever possible, bring a few ‘real’ field guides. One of us (CB) ran a biodiversity challenge at an elementary school and managed to convince the school to buy a couple of sets of field guides. The kids LOVE the look and feel of real field guides and will thumb through them with delight. Part of our own passion about natural history can be traced back to field guides in our houses when we were young.

A field guide to insects - suitable for all ages!

A field guide to insects – suitable for all ages!

Don’t dumb down the material: Too often we think kids need to be talked down to, but nothing is further from the truth. As mentioned above, kids are sponges for information and in our experience they want to hear the details. You will want to avoid jargon, but other than that, provide the details whenever you can. Again, doing a ‘thematic’ talk with school kids becomes quite important because you just won’t have time to cover anything in-depth if you try to cover too much.

Finally, and most importantly, be passionate and enthusiastic. Kids will feel your positive energy and love of entomology; they will feed off of this, take it home with them; they will start asking more questions, start to dream, and fall further in love with the world around them. Spending a bit of time in a classroom is perhaps one of the most important kinds of outreach activities to do.