On October 31, 2017, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote presentation and also facilitating a workshop at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) School of Transportation Development Day, “Tools of the Trade.” Thanks very much to Chief Instructor Eric Fry and BCIT Learning and Teaching Centre Instructional Development Consultant, Rosario Passos, for the invitation.
Here are the presentations and other resources I used. They’re all shared under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so you’re welcome to borrow, use, adapt them (and a mention where you got them would be great, thanks.)
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.
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.
I’ve spent time in that circle of Hell called “marking” (or “grading” as they call it here in the U.S.) My past is filled with stacks of math exams full of multi-step problems and astronomy exams with essays about the nature of science. The only respite from the drudgery of marking are the answers so absurdly incorrect it makes you laugh or the answers that are exactly what you’re looking for – check, check, check-check, check, check, perfect! 10/10.
Happily, I don’t have to mark exams anymore, but I still have an chance to get the tiny squirt of adrenaline that comes from assessing those “exactly what you’re looking for” answers.
I teach a teaching and learning course in the Center for Teaching Development at UCSD called The College Classroom to graduate students and postdocs. Their last assignment is a “microteaching experience.” Traditionally, this involves developing a lesson for a class they might teach someday, delivering that lesson to their fellow students and then getting feedback from their peers and instructors. That’s is a good way to assess the ability to lecture, maybe even the ability to orchestrate some active learning into the lecture, but that’s still only one part of “teaching.” What about all the things that happen before class and after class?
Instead, we ask the students to create lesson plan for a 50- or 80-minute class. It should contain
pre-class tasks like readings, watching videos, exploring websites with clear guidance about what to focus on
pre-reading quiz to assess the pre-class tasks
a skeleton of the lesson, including 3-5 peer instruction (“clicker”) questions but excluding the PowerPoint slides with all content – I don’t want them wasting their time making pretty slides they may never use
several assessment questions that could appear in homework or on the exam
For their presentation, we meet in small groups — me, the TA, and 3 of them — and I ask them to pretend they’re sitting in the coffee room with a few of their colleagues, describing this awesome lesson they’ve planned. They’ve got less than 10 minutes and they should assume everyone present knows the content and can concentrate on the pedagogy. (“In other words, don’t teach us the chemistry. Assume we know it. Tell us how you’ll teach it and why that’s a good approach.”)
When I assign the microteaching task a few weeks before the end of the course, I give them a lesson plan rubric (PDF). It’s using this rubric to assess their presentations that I get those “check, check, check-check, check” moments of satisfaction.
Step 1. Set the learning outcomes What should students learn? What should they be able to do to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the concepts and skills? These outcomes are statements that complete the sentence, “By the end of this lesson/unit, you’ll be able to…” and start with a nice, juicy verb selected from Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain.
Step 2. Decide how you’re going to teach What instructional approaches help students learn? What does the literature tell you about how people learn those skills and concepts? I’m a strong supporter of lecture…in 10-15 minute snippets, when the students are prepared to learn because you’ve primed them through student-centered activities like peer instruction, in-class worksheets and demonstrations, or pre-reading.
Step 3. Assessment What are students learning? Create formative and summative assessments that evaluate students’ mastery of the learning outcomes.
Two important things to notice about this approach:
When it works, it works great. Here’s what I wanted students to know, here’s how I taught it, here’s what they did on the exam. Check, check, check.
When it doesn’t work, it still works great. If students don’t perform like you’d hoped, the pillars help you diagnose the “failure mode,” as my engineering friends would say. Maybe it was a bad exam question that didn’t assess what you wanted to teach. Maybe you didn’t teach it in a way that helped them learn. Maybe you set an unrealistic learning outcome. In other words, you can re-trace through the course design cycle to find out what went wrong.
The College Classroom Microteaching Presentations
When the participants in The College Classroom present their lesson plans, it’s great when I can identify this nice, tight package of learning outcomes, instruction and assessment – check, check, check! I make sure I tell them, hoping that positive feedback will motivate them to do it again. As with marking exams, it’s the incomplete lessons that are difficult to assess. Fortunately, 3-pillared approach together with the rubric makes it easier for me to give targeted, goal-directed formative feedback.