This past week I was able to interact with other fellows in my program who are also currently on teaching externships at a couple of universities around the Richmond area. It was good to catch up and discuss some of the problems we are facing and ways to combat those problems.
One of the major issues we all lamented is the lack of motivation of many of the students in our classrooms. This is a common lamentation of teachers from all levels of education, unfortunately. We all agreed that we should not let it bother us, but as always that is easier said than done. Even when making the class and it’s information as engaging as possible, there will always be a fraction of students that will still not be motivated. It’s good for me to write this here, just to remind myself these statements are true. This does not mean we should not try our best to make the material interesting.
One of the major areas we discussed was the use of active learning techniques during classtime. Both of my counterparts seem to be using a variety of these techniques in their classes already. One for instance has been running the course since day 1 as a flipped classroom and the other uses in-class activities and demonstrations on an almost daily basis. These truths made me reflect on my use (or lack) of activities in the classroom.
To me these discussions always come back to the question of “What is active learning?”. If it’s simply an activity that causes the students to participate more than when just passively listening to a lecture then I have a few ways in which I am already making my classroom “active.” For instance, I ask questions of the students and have selected students answer in front of the class. I also have students participate in polling questions so that everyone in the class has the opportunity to answer instead of just thinking about a question. Sometimes when students ask a question I answer with a question, which helps them answer their own original question. Are all these techniques forms of ‘active learning?’ I think so. But more importantly are they enough and are they effective?
Which leads me to the question of ‘What is the point of using active learning techniques in the classroom?’ One of the main problems in class is keeping students engaged with the material. Getting students to actively think about the material instead of just passively listen is one way to increase engagement. If this is the main purpose of using these techniques than something as simple as asking questions of the students during class should increase engagement if the student thinks about, tries to answer, and or listens to the answer to the question. Certainly making students physically perform an action during class or watch a demonstration should also enhance engagement. So what is enough use of these techniques and how fancy do they have to be to really enhance student engagement? I don’t know, but I think it’s something that we as educators should certainly consider.
One way to evaluate your classroom techniques is through the lens of Chickering and Gamson’s famous ‘7 Principles.’ (Thanks GRAD602) The version linked to is an update that discusses their ideas in light of advances in classroom technology. I’ll evaluate below how I think I am doing in relation to these principles.
1. Good Practice Encourages Contacts Between Students and Faculty: I try to have interaction during classtime by asking questions of my students and vice versa. I also talk to students before and after class and encourage them to visit my office (not many take me up on the last part). Certainly, I would like to increase student interaction with me during the rest of the semester. When I do have a conversation with a student I try to find out more about him/her outside of my single class or school in general.
2. Good Practice Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students: I have not really had the students work together in class although I can tell they work together on their homework (which is good unless it just means copying another student’s work). I don’t necessarily feel a sense of community between most of the students in the room, something I need to work on (i.e. group activities in or out of class).
3. Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques: Again an area where I need to up my game. I am using some of the ‘simplest’ versions of these techniques but in the second half plan to design more activities for the students to work on in and out of class.
4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback: I think I do fairly well here. I have been very timely getting homework and test grades back to the students along with including correct answers. Moreover, I have used polling software and question/answer sessions during class where feedback/answers are given very promptly. I am also usually prompt in responding to student e-mails.
5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task: I certainly have not addressed time management much in class. I do provide my slides to the student’s via Blackboard for their personal use along with a wider variety of slides that covers topics I may not get to cover in class. I tell them areas to focus on when studying and try to align my assignments with the material and types of questions I ask on a test. These promote efficient studying in my opinion.
6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations: Yes and no here. I go back and forth on being too hard or too easy. My mentor for class expects perfect spelling of scientific terms from students, but I am a bit more lax. I am not sure yet whether perfect spelling of unfamiliar words is a necessary ‘high expectation.’ I however do have high expectations when it comes to the types of analytical thinking and questions I expect the students to be able to answer. I try to focus on concepts that are less memorization and more ‘critical thinking skills’ (there’s my buzzword quota for the day in one sentence). That is a high expectation compared to the types of questions/knowledge they receive in other classes.
7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning: I don’t really believe in a variety of learning styles. In my opinion it’s been pretty well de-bunked and the main idea I focus on is dual-processing theory. This is in line with the idea that pictures and words together are better than either alone. Moreover, the use of spoken word may be better than written text, which ties into Mayer’s theory of multimedia learning. One thing I have spent alot of time playing with is effective use of multimedia presentation via Powerpoint. I know this is not the end-all be-all of instruction but if used effectively it is a great tool for instruction. As far as respecting diverse talents/abilities the grading system in the class is set up such that those students who are poor test takers have enough other graded activities that they can perform poorly on tests but well on other assignments and still pass the class. Those other activities are a discussion for another day.
Anyway the point here is: I NEED TO UP MY GAME the second half of this semester!