Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Alternative Strategies and Active Learning # 2

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.

Like case studies, simulations provide students with practice in decision making, but in a different, more engaging, format. Since simulations are based on real-life situations, they present students with choices and constraints that reflect real-world problems. For example, a class in political science might simulate a city council meeting to decide on the location of a halfway house for juvenile offenders. Students are given particular roles to play: members of the police department, representatives of neighborhood associations, social workers trying to reintegrate juvenile offenders into society, and others with conflicting concerns. The task facing the class is to come to agreement about the placement of the halfway house. The instructional objectives are to practice negotiation skills, engage in proble solving, and discover techniques for reaching compromise.

Simulations are more difficult and time-consuming to write than case studies, and they usually take more time in class, although the teacher’s role is less directive than in the case study method. They also require more explanation before the exercise and, when completed, a careful exposition of what has been learned by relating students’ experiences to the general principles involved. Nonetheless, simulations can be very effective in teaching problem solving and in developing students’ self-confidence.

Games and simulations are closely related, and there are mixed varieties: simulation games, nonsimulation games, and non-game simulations. Games are activities in which there are winners and
losers, definite sets of rules for “moves,” and frequent use of props or other paraphernalia. For example, in a game used in sociology classes, players are randomly assigned to several different groups and provided with colored markers that represent money. They are told to maximize their cash through negotiations and trade with other groups, but the rules for trading markers are actually stacked against certain groups — they literally cannot win. This game allows students to experience in a small way life in a rigid class society in which improvement of one’s condition is made difficult or impossible by the society’s economic rules.Although it is possible to devise games yourself, hundreds of instructional games and simulations have been published by organizations involved in education and training.

Written Assignments and Out-of-Class Exercises
Written assignments can be more original and exciting than the usual term papers, book reports, and homework assignments. Students are capable of producing fairly sophisticated work if the assignment is clearly explained and carefully structured. For example, you might require students to observe and report on a city council meeting, fundamentalist revival, ballet, construction site, archeological excavation, bus station, or protest march. Of course, you would need to teach them how to take observational notes and suggest an organizational framework for the final report.

To help students sharpen writing skills, you may decide to assign shorter papers and allow rewrites until their work is acceptable. In general, many short writing assignments are preferable to a single long paper, depending upon the goals of the course and the level of student skills. Regardless of the length of the assignment, clearly written instructions are indispensable (giving such assignments orally is usually not effective). For more on using writing in your teaching, see pages 76-79.

Class time can be used for focused activities in which students can practice essential skills. For example, in math-related subjects, after fifteen to twenty minutes of instruction on a particular kind of problem, you could require students to work examples alone for fifteen minutes. This technique forces them to try to apply the concepts that have just been taught, and usually produces questions they didn’t think to ask during the lecture (and also provides a powerful antidote to boredom). Since students typically defer their homework problems until the night before the next class, they often lose the thread of the explanation by that time - immediate practice in class helps reinforce the explanation. Also in math-related courses, requiring students to work homework problems on the chalkboard provides an opportunity to correct their errors and misconceptions and to ask questions about other homework problems while they are at the board.

In the social sciences and humanities, requiring short in-class writing exercises is analogous to working math problems in class. These exercises can take many different forms - for example: a paragraph defending or attacking a particular point of view, a one-page analysis of a reading assignment, or a short essay summarizing the student’s impression of a class discussion. The variety of these short writing  assignments is endless, and they need not take huge amounts of class time — many can be accomplished in ten minutes or less.

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

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