Last week’s Teaching Tip explored some of the benefits to using active learning techniques to fosterdeeper learning in our students. That was the theory – now we need to put it into practice. This week, we’ll look at some active learning activities you can adapt for your courses. Remember that active learning is an umbrella term that refers to instructional strategies that place the responsibility of learning on the learner. The focus on the teaching-learning is removed from the teacher and placed directly on the student. It is not the teacher passively lecturing to the student, but is the student participating in active hands-on and authentic learning activities.
Group work can be a great way to get students to take control of their own learning. Make sure to give the students an assignment where they have to work together to create some kind of result based on the skills they are learning in class. Not only will this help your students learn to use what they are studying in class, it will also help them develop team building and leadership skills.
In the Physical Education department, students who take Outdoor Education courses often have to go on weekend trips. After learning in class some theory about the kinds of things they need to consider when preparing for a trip, they work in groups to plan everything they need to survive a weekend in the woods. This means that as a group they have to gather their equipment, plan their meals, divide the daily tasks and watch out for the safety of their fellow group members. As a group they can gain from each other’s strengths and work together to find solutions to problems. They also learn the value of sharing a task when it is too large for one person to manage.
Ohm isn’t Just for Yoga
Turning theory into practice is one of the mainstays of active learning, and nowhere else is this more evident than courses (i.e. science, technology, communications, social science etc.) with associated laboratory sessions. Students are introduced to a concept in class, and then test and/or further develop the concept outside of the theory class, through lab activities and/or homework assignments.
An example is courses where Ohm’s Law is taught. The teacher introduces the theory behind the concept of Ohm’s Law in class, clearly explaining the relationships (current, voltage, resistance relationships) and providing the students with real-life examples. For homework, as well as being given authentic problems to practice the math involved, the students are asked to find and document examples of Ohm’s Law in action in their homes. This helps them better understand the newly introduced concept by giving it real contexts. The following class is a lab session, in which students work together to create and conduct an experiment that will demonstrate the concept of Ohm’s Law in practice. To encourage deeper processing, the teacher doesn’t design the experiment, instead, students themselves develop a procedure, select the correct components and measuring instruments, construct a circuit, and perform the experiment, taking appropriate measurements and verifying the results. While the development of the activity may be done in groups of 10 to 12 students, the actual construction and measurments can take place in smaller groups of 2 or 3, and students are encouraged to compare results and discuss differences. Following the activity, students write a lab report or prepare for a presentation, explaining and discussing the results. Because the students not only perform the experiment but also create it, their brains work with the new concept from different directions, making it easier for the brain to contextualize the theory and retain the knowledge. By consulting with their peers as well as the teacher, the students can explore areas of the theory that may be confusing – and the teacher can see where misconceptions may be leading people astray, and bring them back on track.
In The Psychology of Cults course, one particular difficulty is to get students to differentiate the ‘unusual’ in these groups from the actually harmful, the consensual from the abusive. The students’ major project is an active one. They must choose a group that has cult-like aspects, and present to the class on that group, applying the theory discussed in class. This is a big challenge, because there are no psychology texts available about these groups; they have to work this out themselves. Students work in pairs, and their oral presentations usually contain some very good insights into the groups.
In physics, one active-learning exercise involves taking groups of students out for a lab and asking them, either with their cell phone cameras or a camcorder to film any motion that interests them. Examples include buses accelerating, balls being thrown or bounced from the fire escape, students throwing objects from a hovercraft board. Students often have trouble relating what they learn in class to the real world, so the more input and creativity they can bring to the exercise the better. Students can also explore Youtube for clips they think are relevant.
Back at the lab, there are some computer programs and apps which can track the motion in the video frame-by-frame. The students can then analyze the position, velocity and acceleration of their chosen objects as a function of time, looking at changes in forces as an example. The students can make deep connections between the concepts, real life, and even what they are learning in other disciplines e.g. calculus.
Teach Each Other
Students can teach each other about new material or applications of previous learning. Groups of 3 or 4 can split up and find or create information (from their own analysis, their text, databases, the internet …) about the different segments of the topic. Then they re-group, and teach those segments to each other, discuss it, ask questions, and clarify anything that is still incomplete or confusing, by gathering more information, or consulting with the teacher. The big risk is that each student will learn ‘their’ section well, but not that presented by others, or that the info won’t be learned in an integrated way. In order to encourage the extra effort that will ensure thorough and integrated learning, evaluate the students’ knowledge of the material, as soon as possible, and preferably individually, through a quiz, an assignment or a section on a test. As with any group work, it’s a good idea to assign people to groups, and change the groups around if you do this more than once, so groups don’t lean too heavily on stronger or more motivated individuals.
Teach the Class
A more elaborate peer teaching activity is the panel presentation. Choose a few topics that can be covered over the course of the semester, and tell students that you’re sharing the responsibility of teaching certain aspects of the course. In groups of three or four, students will research and present on one of these topics – but this isn’t your typical oral presentation. Each group gets to teach the class for an entire class period in which they present as a panel, and are expected to teach their classmates everything they need to know about the chosen topic. It helps to have the class arrange their desks in a circle, with the presenting group seated together at the “top” of the circle.
On top of the presentation, the group must provide:
- A handout of key concepts and terms (no more than two pages, back-to-back) [tell student you can print this for them as long as you get the handout ahead of time, otherwise, they are responsible for their own printing];
- A list of at least ten discussion questions designed to provoke in-depth discussion – and remind the group that as the facilitators, they should have some idea of the answers!
- A reflection question for the end of the session.
The presentation itself should take 15-20 minutes, or even less – the bulk of the session should be devoted to the discussion between the group and the rest of the class. Be sure to make it clear to the groups that the discussion questions should help establish connections between the chosen topic and the other course material; for instance, they might refer to previous material or the assigned reading.
At the end of the discussion, the class should write in response to the reflection question, and the group’s final task is to evaluate the responses – this lets them know how well the class understood their topic, and gives them a nice way to wrap up the presentation.
Choose topics that supplement the material you’re covering in class, rather than relying on the student groups to prepare adequately for a lecture on key concepts – so for instance, students might present on the real history of Columbia to supplement the course that includes the works of Columbian authors. Of course, it’s also important to be prepared to amend, supplement, clarify and correct as needed.
To Your Crayons!
In psychology courses, students often have to go beyond the basics of the textbook to learn the concepts. For instance, in Psych of Sex, students must learn some basic anatomy, and this is often easier with active learning techniques. Teachers can ask students to colour and label outline drawings of male and female genitalia, according to a rather silly colour scheme, or to have them model the genitalia in Play-Doh or plasticine, then label. Yes it’s fun, but more importantly, making it active works!
One way to help students understand complex social issues is to have them participate in a role playing activity, such as a model UN session, a mock electoral debate, or a town hall meeting. Tell students that in the next class, you will all be UN delegates, election candidates, or concerned citizens.
To prepare for the activity, students must research the issue, and prepare statements or questions for the activity. Depending on the format, you can assign certain students specific roles – so, for instance, you can assign specific countries to individual delegates for the model UN session, or appoint one person to act as the mayor for the town hall meeting. There are some excellent on-line resources for creating a model UN session, and the activity can be quite formal, if you choose, so students learn not only about the issue, but also about effective debate and negotiation.
This activity can be as simple or as elaborate as you like – you can stick to a single class period for the activity, or create a timeline that you follow throughout the semester. Your election campaign, for instance, might start with a leadership convention for different parties, followed by media interviews, debates between the candidates, developing an electoral platform, and finally an election. Be sure to get everyone in the class involved somehow – those who aren’t running for office should be reporters, voters, incumbents and so on.
This kind of activity often works really well in terms of provoking that emotional response that makes active learning so effective. As well, because students are thinking of the issues in a more personal way (even if that persona is only pretend), they are better able to understand how issues can be seen from different perspectives.
To see our previous Teaching Tip on the theory behind Active Learning, follow this link.
Pedagogical Development Office