Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Alternative Strategies and Active Learning # 1

As you consider various modes of instruction, keep in mind that student learning depends primarily on what the students do, both in and out of class, rather than what the teacher does. Your task is to select activities through which students can master course objectives. Lectures, discussions, written exercises, reading assignments, tests, group work, individualized instruction, field trips, observations, experiments, and many other kinds of experiences may be necessary for students to learn the things you want them to learn. Your choice of strategies is affected by a number of considerations: the level of the objectives, the abilities of the students, your teaching skills and preferences, the size of the class. However, since college is supposed to help students sharpen their higher-order thinking skills, strategies that promote active involvement in learning should be the goal of every teacher.

Peer teaching
Research has shown that students who are required to teach something learn concepts better than if they are taught the material in conventional ways. In other words, teaching is a more effective learning strategy than being taught, and it makes sense to use this principle in the classroom to increase learning. Pairing students atlearning tasks is more effective than having students work alone (a good reason for having lab partners in the natural sciences).Peer teaching can easily be incorporated in most classes. For example, you could make an assignment in which students must prepare their own questions on the main points of a reading selection; in class, have students work in pairs or small groups, alternately asking and answering questions they have prepared.

During the session, you can move from group to group, giving feedback and asking and answering questions yourself. Students are more willing to share their views in small groups and often develop deeper insights about the material than they would working alone. In math-related courses, students could be required to make up original problems to solve (after completing a regular homework assignment). Instead of the dreary oral report so often used in social science classes, why not require students to prepare a lesson on the topic? Their grades could depend, in part, on how well the class answers test questions on that topic. Exercise caution in using this strategy, however, for undergraduates not only need instructions about how to teach a lesson, they also should know the criteria you will use for evaluating their performance.

Cooperative Learning Groups
Many teachers will occasionally break their classes into small groups for discussions, but only a few use the technique as a fundamental teaching tool. A class can be divided into learning teams that are periodically given instructional tasks to complete, either in or out of class. Research has shown that, with careful planning, this technique increases the efficiency and effectiveness of learning. 

Groups of six or seven work best because this size is small enough for everyone to participate in problem solving or debate, yet large enough for a spectrum of views to be represented. To work successfully, groups require a wide variety of viewpoints and intellectual skills, so it is important to make them as heterogeneous as possible. The individual data cards you collect on the first day of class can yield important information about your students’ backgrounds and preparation and make it easier to create heterogeneous groups. 

A professor of political science who uses long-term groups in his class tries to insure that each team has someone with a math background and at least one political science major. He creates groups with maximum diversity with respect to major, gender, race, and other characteristics. The tasks you assign for group work should challenge students to analyze phenomena, solve problems, apply theories, exercise judgment, or perform some combination of these activities. Clearly written instructions are vital to the success of this kind of exercise, which means the teacher must analyze the task carefully and break it down into its component parts. 

During the exercise, the teacher moves from group to group, answering questions, clarifying instructions, giving advice, and observing the group process. Group exercises can be designed for 15- to 20-minute periods, and need not consume an entire class period.In a well-designed group activity, there should be little need for direct intervention by the teacher. It is true that many teachers are uncomfortable with the loss of direct control that accompanies small-group work, but you still govern the process and outcome by the instructions you provide for the groups. Small groups can be used with a variety of other techniques, such as peer teaching, case studies, and simulations; imaginative teachers are discovering new ways to use the technique every day.

Case Studies
Case studies are appropriate for learning about information analysis, decision making, or problem solving. The method, made famous by the Harvard Business School, requires the development of a set of cases that reflect problems or issues in the course material. For example, in an anthropology course, a case might describe the artifacts discovered in a real or hypothetical excavation. The students, as a group, would be expected to infer information about the life and culture of the people who lived at the site, based on knowledge and techniques they had learned in other parts of the course.

Depending upon the nature of the material and the sophistication of the students, cases can be quite lengthy and complex. You can divide the class into small groups to work on the case and circulate among them to facilitate the process. Over the semester, cases can be made more complex and challenging as students become more knowledgeable.

The development of case studies for an entire course requires research into the method to master its subtleties. Cases must provide enough information to elicit analytical thought, but not so much that the solutions are obvious. This process can be very time-consuming, but once the cases are written, they may need only a few revisions to run successfully semester after semester. Remember that students need to master a common knowledge base before they will be ready to tackle a case study, and they need to understand clearly the steps in the analytical process they will use. Finally, managing the discussion of case studies requires techniques that differ from generalized discussion methods, and it would be helpful to observe a teacher experienced in the method before trying it yourself.

*Adapted from Teaching at Carolina (1998). Chapel Hill: Center for Teaching and Learning, University of North Carolin

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