Goodbye chalkboard! The opportunities and challenges of teaching in an active learning classroom

This year I have the pleasure of teaching my Population and Community Ecology class in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms – this one is touted as been quite exceptional, and I’m keen to put it to the test. Over the past 4-5 years, I have been teaching my quantitative ecology course almost entirely with chalk. In fact, I have actively argued about the value of teaching with chalk, and about a move away from technology can be beneficial to student learning, to my own teaching, and overall a very positive experience for all. Now I’ll be faced with this kind of environment when teaching my class:

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A view of two of the group tables in the Macdonald Campus active learning classroom; each “pod” seats 12 students (in three wings), and each is colour coded, and linked and adjacent to a screen and whiteboard

So why change?

One problem with the Chalkboard it that it doesn’t easily allow for ‘capturing’ the content from the board. Students need to write their own notes (which is good, in my opinion), but at times there may be specific equations, graphs, or other content from the board that they wished they could have captured, but failed to do so. The Active Learning classroom allows an easy way to overcome this – as the tablet/screen that is in the room has a smart pen, and acts like a chalkboard (or, rather, kind of like a smartboard, except that the instructor uses the screen at the podium in the middle of the room). I can therefore project this board, and teach as if I was using chalk, and everything I write is projected on one of the screens. The big benefit here is that I can save everything I write as a PDF (or other file type), and upload the notes to the online course management system. This approach still encourages students to come to class and take notes, but doesn’t put them in a position to rush with notetaking, and live in fear of missing something that I write on the board. Here’s an example from the first lecture (it’s a bit clunky, and I’m not used to writing on the screen yet, but hopefully will get more seamless as the term progresses):
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Another great benefit of the classroom is that it allows a second screen to be projected simultaneously as the first screen – I am thinking of primarily using this second screen to project graphs or equations directly from the textbook, through the use of a very high quality document camera. This saves me from having to hand-draw graphs (I do this very, very poorly – drawing straight lines is NOT easy!), and will allow the students to see the very direct ways that the content relates to the course’s textbook. This photo below shows how this looks: in that example the textbook cover is projected on the left screen and some ice-breaking questions are presented on the right-hand screen.

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I have been trying to transition my course into more of an active learning course, and set an active learning challenge last year. Overall I felt this was very beneficial, but the traditional lecture theatre (where I have taught in the past) is not conducive to active group work and student collaboration. I’m excited that the active learning classroom is ideally set up for this: the 84 students in the class sit at seven separate tables, each with 12 students, and the tables are designed into three wings of four students each. This is optimal for group work, and provides many opportunities for different sizes of groups. Next to each table is a whiteboard and screen, and each table can project (independently) onto their screen. Students then have many options to collaborate and work on problems. I’m excited about this, and look forward to having groups of students work on problems together, collaboratively. The interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t seem that big, yet is a classroom that holds 84 students! It’s also designed so that the noise level isn’t overwhelming when students are working in groups.

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Students writing out ideas/answers to some questions, with their groups (from two different groups – notice the different colours?)

During the first lecture last week, I asked students how many of them had previously taken classes in the Active Learning classroom, and of those that did, many stated they did not enjoy the classroom. A little more discussion revealed that the students who disliked the classroom said their instructor used the room as a traditional lecture hall, and taught with powerpoint slides, from a podium. This clearly doesn’t work – the podium is in the middle, there are multiple screens (students say they are confused about where to look), and there are pillars that run right through the classroom (unavoidable since these are support pillars – and the classroom is in a basement); the ‘feel’ of the room, when used for traditional podium lectures, is all wrong. To use an Active Learning classroom means moving away from a podium-style lecture.

I certainly have a challenge ahead: in order to fully use the classroom’s potential, and make it engaging for the students, I have to ensure the technology and space is used properly. I’m only at the very start of term, so I will certainly report back on the experiences as the course unfolds. That being said, the combination of the technology and design is really promising for an active learning environment for my ecology class. It may just lead to the abandonment of chalk for a smart pen…

Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help other instructors, we need creative ideas, approaches and case studies, which is what Drew provides.

In the first case study, Drew gives an example of a marine conservation course that pairs students from a poor neighbourhood of Chicago with students from Fiji and through online resources, student learn content together, and do group projects with their peers. I was most impressed with how the capstone project in this course meant the students needed to problem solve with other students who were from entirely different cultures – something that is very difficult in a more traditional classroom setting. Typical courses in STEM seldom embrace a learning context that literally connects students from around the world.

The second case study focuses on how Drew used Twitter to continue teaching at Columbia University after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, and many students could not get to class. Students were given access to class notes via Figshare, and lectures were delivered in 140 character packets. Given the open format, the tweets could be viewed by anyone in the world, which created an inclusive learning environment for everyone, whether registered in the class, or not. Although this is a more indirect way of teaching with attention to diversity, Drew argues that Twitter is an effective tool to help break down barriers and can be used effectively to increase student engagement. (The Twitter course was, by the way, how I got to know Josh Drew on Twitter, and his example helped me shape my own teaching with Twitter).

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

The third case study was a hands-on marine conservation workshop in Fiji, held jointly by Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific. The “real world” aspect of the course was facilitated by simple and inexpensive scientific equipment, and had a focus on open-access data by the participants. Of note, the students in the workshop were from six different countries, brought together to work on conservation priorities of relevance to the South Pacific. This case study certainly resonated with me, as I try to have my students tackle projects in the field (with all its challenges) as this provides a rich learning opportunity for all. However, unlike my course in Montreal, Drew’s example includes a very unique cultural experience for the participants. Teaching and learning in different places certainly embraces diversity in STEM, and although not always practical or feasible, such opportunities should be sought and supported.

In sum, Drew’s paper resonated strongly for a few reasons. The case studies are themselves great examples for all of us involved in teaching in higher education. The technological aspects are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, and many of tools highlighted are accessible. I appreciated his arguments at the end of the paper about ensuring accessibility; instructors must pay attention to ensuring class participants are able to get and use the tools, especially when thinking about students access to computers, smartphones, data plans and WIFI.

Perhaps the part that spoke to me the most was thinking about how technology can be a facilitator for increased diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. I must be honest in saying that I don’t typically consider my own teaching with technology thought this lens, but I am now starting to look at this differently. Not all students from all communities will face a traditional classroom in the same say, and the “podium style” of teaching and learning in higher education may really marginalize some people more than they already are. Online classrooms, Twitter and active learning in partnership with peers are great examples of ways to open up our universities regardless of potential constraints, whether they be economics, race, culture or gender identification.

Thanks, Josh Drew, for making me pause and reflect, and for giving us all some good ideas.

Reference:

 Drew, J. Using technology to expand the classroom in time, space and diversity. Integr. Comp. Biol. (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv044

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!