Every learner needs to build new concepts into their own pre-existing knowledge. That’s the constructivist model for teaching and learning and ultimately, I believe, the rationale and justification for active learning. Like I said on Twitter a few weeks ago,
“Active learning” means *every* student has opps to practice expert-like behaviors, not just select few who raise hands or voices.
— Peter Newbury (@polarisdotca) March 15, 2016
“Active learning” takes prep and choreography to support *every* student. Asking “Any questions?” (even frequently) is not enough imho.
— Peter Newbury (@polarisdotca) March 15, 2016
So what goes into that “prep” to support every students? Here’s my train of thought:
A guide for preparing students
For now, I want to focus on these steps:
To manufacture time for active learning and to create the guide for students, the instructor should look at the topics, section, ideas, learning outcomes — whatever unit of knowledge they’re using to plan the course — and decide which of these are easy enough the students can learn on their own, and which are challenging and need to be explored together in class. There should be clear distinctions between what students are responsible for, what will be covered together in class, and what won’t be covered. My friend, Robert Talbert, gives a nice description of using Bloom’s Taxonomy to classify his learning objectives and picking a cutoff between what students can do on their own and what they need to do together.
Here’s how I picture it, with students responsible for the blue topics, leaving the orange topics for class:
I have privilege of teaching a large group of UC San Diego graduate students and postdocs about teaching and learning. At the end of the course, each student backward-designs a 50- or 80-minute lesson with learning outcomes, assessment, and instructional strategies. They also select readings and other pre-class activities, including guidance for their students about how to prepare for class.
They’ve all done a great job recognizing students don’t need to read all of Chapter 3 and 4 in order to prepare for tomorrow’s class. But many wrote guidance like, “Read Chapter 3, paying attention to the notation and the differences between the 3 theories presented by the author.” Full disclosure: that’s how I suggested they write the guidance and and that’s how they did it. Only after listening to my own faulty advice 50 times did I realize there’s a problem:
To me, that kind of guidance looks like this:
To prepare for class, the students learn a little about everything. Then in class, the instructor goes over each topic, expanding on what the student started to learn. And that can lead to problems:
- students don’t know how much they have to learn about each topic – there is no definition of mastery — and so they don’t know if they’re ready for class
- the instructor is probably asking students to learn conceptually-challenging concepts they’re not capable of learning on their own — that’s why they come to class!
- if a student doesn’t do the pre-class readings, that’s okay, the instructor will go over most of it in class. In other words, why bother reading next time?
- a student who does the pre-class readings may not see the value of that effort because the instructor went over it anyway. Again, why bother reading next time?
- there’s a risk in the “clear distinction” version of guiding the students, too: if a student doesn’t do the pre-class reading, they will struggle in class because the instructor is assuming they have the required background knowledge.
How to you get them to do it?
If you’re going to ask your students to invest a considerable amount of work in the class, they need to know why. “Because I said so” isn’t sufficient. Here are two ways to get buy-in:
- Show them it’s valuable by letting them use their new knowledge and skills in class. If a student prepares for class and gets to, or better yet, has to, contribute to their and their classmates’ learning, they’ll do it again next time. And similarly, if they didn’t need to prepare, because the content wasn’t used or because the instructor went over it anyway, they’ll think twice about preparing for the next class.
- Along with the pre-class guidance, instructors should plan for a pre-class reading quiz. The quiz questions assess students’ mastery of the (blue) topics they’re responsible for learning. A student who follows the guidance should have no trouble getting 100% on the quiz and a few percentage points toward their grade. Bonus: the instructor can check the students’ success on the reading quiz to ensure they’re prepared for class (or plan to cover a topic that was shown to be too difficult for students to learn on their own.)
Guided Practice and Preparation
Robert Talbert wrote an excellent description of the guided practice he gives his students before each class. I’ll leave the last word about supporting in-class, active learning to my friend, Beth Simon. She’s infectiously enthusiastic about flipping her class in order to create an engaging and rich learning experience when she and her students meet face-to-face.