Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussions in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.
Those times in our in-person classes when we stop talking and let the students work together on something – those are some of the most rewarding moments. We get to walk around the room, connect up close with our students, show them we’re human and that they’re more than a student number. If the activity is a good one, the room is loud, students are practicing expert-like ways of thinking and talking, and they’re learning. On their own. Without you.
(Well, don’t underestimate the amount of work you’ve already done assembling materials for the group work, preparing students to work effectively without you, and creating a classroom culture where they know this activity is valuable enough to give it their attention.)
How can we recreate this in synchronous, online classes?
Following the example of some all-star colleagues like Bridgette Clarkston @funnyfishes, I’ve been facilitating group work in a course I’m teaching using the meeting software (Collaborate Ultra) and Google Slides. I’ve tried this 3 or 4 times with my small group of students and honestly, I’m pretty happy with it!
If you have suggestions and feedback, I’d love to hear it!
Updated Nov 23, 2020: Thanks, Greg duManoir @gdumanoir, for pointing out that teaching assistants can also circulate through the breakout rooms and Google Sheets, providing another opportunity for students to connect with the teaching team.
Update Nov 23, 2020: Thanks, Steve McNeil @wsmcneil, for a variation using Google Docs. Steve creates student groups in the LMS. When it’s time for the activity, students in Group 7 go into Breakout Room 7, and respond to Question 7 in the shared Google Doc.
As class size increases, instructors face an increasingly difficult challenge. There is clear evidence that more students are more successful in classes with active learning. Yet the work required to facilitate active learning – logistics, providing feedback, supporting and interacting with individual students – increases with class size. And despite the importance of the design of learning spaces, large classrooms often impede student-student and student-instructor interactions.
At UBC’s Okanagan campus, I was invited to advise the architects and campus planners on the design a new 400-seat classroom.
Design Principle: Eliminate everything that hinders student-student collaboration and student-instructor interaction.
My poster uses a giant 6-page “book” (you can see it drooping slightly in the center of the poster in the picture above) to highlight different features and characteristics of the design:
Student flow: Main entrances to the classroom are at the middle of the room. Students flow in and downhill toward the front. Sitting at the back takes deliberate effort. Students can discretely enter and exit without disrupting the class or the instructor.
Accessible seating: Fully 20% of seating – roughly 90 locations – are accessible to students using wheelchairs. They can sit in groups with their peers at prime locations, instead of being isolated or confined to designated seats.
Network of aisles: A network of aisles throughout the classroom allows instructors and teaching assistants to get face-to-face or within arm’s reach of every student. Wireless presentation system allows instructors to teach from any location and project any student’s device.
Group work with whiteboards: Students on narrower front desks swivel around to work with their peers on wider desks. With 150 whiteboards scattered throughout the room, groups can be collaborating within seconds of their instructor saying, “Grab a whiteboard and…”
Lighting: Separate front, middle, back lights create smaller classrooms for 250 and 100 students.
Prep room: Prep room is accessible from outside the classroom so instructors can prepare before and after class. Includes sink, glassware drying rack, storage cabinets, lockable flammable solvent cabinet, fume hood, chemical resistant countertops, first aid kit, demo cart.
Design Features Promote Collaboration and Interaction
The classroom is gently tiered so students farther back can see the front. There are 2 desks on each tier. The front desk is wide enough to hold a notebook and laptop. The rear desk is nearly twice as wide, allowing the front student to swivel around and work with their peers in the rear desk.
Swivel chairs on wheels allow students to easily move and work with others around them.
The front desk on each tier has a modesty screen. There are deliberately NOT modesty screens on the rear desks, allowing students on the front desk to swivel around to the rear desk without smashing their knees or having to sit awkwardly.
There are power outlets for every student under the desktop, leaving the work surface unbroken and smooth for notebooks, laptops, and whiteboards.
When the instructor or teaching assistant stands in the aisle in front of the front desk, they can speak face-to-face with the 1st row of students, and are within arm’s reach of the 2nd row. From the aisle on the back of this set of four rows of desks, the instructor or teaching assistant is face-to-face with students in the 4th row and within arm’s reach of the 3rd row.
And here’s what it actually looks like!
(left) Students focus their attention on the front of the room when the instructor is lecturing and writing on the doc cam. (right) At a moment’s notice, students can swivel and gather on the wider, rear desks, grab a nearby whiteboard, and work together.
Optimizing Visibility of the Screen
A slightly curved screen at the front of the classroom is large enough to display two standard inputs. A third projector can display a single image across the screen. The screen is about 7 or 8 feet above the floor, so the instructor at the front does not cast a shadow on the screen or look directly into the projectors (housed in a 2nd floor projection room at the back of the classroom.) The size and curvature of the screen ensure all but the very front-left and front-right seats have views of the screen within UBC’s guidelines.
Here’s what it actually looks like! I’m running two PPT presentations, one through the left projector and through the right, to fill the entire screen with one 32:9 image:
Does the Design Enhance Learning?
We are studying the impact of the design by comparing data collected before and after course instructors teach their courses in the 400-seat classroom, including
distributions of final grades and grades on in-class activities like peer instruction (“clicker”) questions and group work sheet
drop, fail, withdrawal (DFW) rates
locations of the course instructor and teaching assistants at 2-minute intervals throughout the class period
what the instructor is doing (lecturing, writing, posing questions,…) and what the students are doing (listening, discussing peer instruction questions, asking questions,…) using the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS)3,4
Update: Summer 2019
During the Winter 2018, Fall 2018, and Winter 2019 Terms, we used the COPUS protocol to record what John, Steve, and Tamara were doing, and what their students were doing, both in the active learning classroom and in other, more traditional lecture halls.
Spoiler: I was hoping for an obvious uptick in the kinds instructional strategies they facilitated and increase in students marks when they moved to the active learning classroom. We didn’t find it. And we think we know why: they need to teach for a term in the new classroom to discover what it enables and how they can revise their materials and lesson plans for the next time they teach there.
The COPUS protocol records what the instructors are doing during the class. Here’s what John, Steve, and Tamara do in the traditional lecture halls (blue) and what John and Tamara do the active learning classroom (green). There’s no obvious change in the three most frequent instructional strategies, lecturing, writing on the doc cam, and asking clicker questions.
With no significant change in what the instructors are doing, it’s no surprise there’s little change in what their students are doing:
It’s also not surprising that are big changes in students’ final marks. While it’s true physics marks are different than chemistry marks, there are no significant changes in students’ physics marks or students’ chemistry marks between courses taught in traditional lecture halls (blue) and the active learning classroom (green).
Instructors may need to teach for at least one term in the active learning classroom to observe and experience the features that enable more active learning instructional strategies before they make lasting changes to their teaching.
Instructors should get an orientation to the features of the active learning classroom as soon as they’re scheduled to teach there, so they can get a head start on revising how they teach.
Update: Fall 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all courses online. The active learning classroom, sadly, is quiet and empty. Only a few COPUS observations were made in the Winter 2020 Term before the emergency pivot and no observations have occurred since.
My thanks to Dora Anderson, Heather Berringer, Deborah Buszard, Rob Einarson, W. Stephen McNeil, Carol Phillips, Jodi Scott, and Todd Zimmerman for the opportunity to help design to this learning space.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Beichner, R., Saul, J., Abbott, D., Morse, J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R., … & Risley, J. (2007). The Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project, a peer reviewed chapter of Research-Based Reform of University Physics. College Park, MD: Am Assoc of Physics Teachers.
Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne-Peters, S. E., … & Levis-Fitzgerald, M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383), 1468-1470. doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8892
Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): a new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618-627. doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-08-0154
No, no, not the first conference I attended. The first conference I’ve organized. I’m really enjoying the opportunity (try to) do all the things I’ve said about conferences that started with, “If this was my conference, I’d…”
The 13th annual learning conference explores how we can design, assess, and facilitate learning that engages every learner, allowing each student to build their own knowledge and contribute their own strengths to their learning and the learning of their classmates and instructors.
Here are some of the features and events I’ve decided on, very often with input from my more experienced colleagues:
Theme: Engaging Every Learner
The conference theme has been cycling through pedagogy, student experience, and education research. It was time for a pedagogy theme again so I picked something I think will have lots of entry points: the whole backward design process, diversity of students, critical pedagogy, #edtech. I’m still wondering if this theme is too wide? too narrow? Will people have things to propose for sessions? Is it interesting enough that people will attend? All the questions. We’ll see in 3 months, I guess.
Names and name tags
I’m ensuring name fields on the proposal form and registration form that ask people how they want their name to appear in the program and on their name tag. Which can be different than the name on the paper or poster. And I’m giving people space to write special instructions about their names in case there are accents or special characters that a typical web browser form doesn’t recognize. (Thanks, Aimée Morrison @digiwonk for telling me how much she hates having to draw in the accent on her name tag. Every. Single. Time.)
Yes, this means there may be name tags that have to be created “by hand” rather than pouring the registration database into the labeling program. That will take time for my organizing committee colleagues. But how can I advocate for engaging every learner if I can’t afford the effort to get each conference attendee’s name correct?
Twitter handles on name tags
I’m tired of writing my twitter handle @polarisdotca and crappily drawing a Twitter bird on my name tag. Every. Single. Time. So the registration form asks people to give their Twitter handle if they want it to appear on their name tag. Yes, it means creating some name tags with the Twitter stuff and some without. Again, how can I not ensure each learner is welcome and supported?
Keynote speaker: Sarah Eddy
The landmark 2014 active learning meta-analysis by Freeman et al. provides, once and for all, the evidence that effective active learning helps students learn. (Aatish Bhatia wrote an excellent summary.) I know the analysis comes from the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines because that’s where the data exist, not because that’s the only place active learning exists successfully. Sarah is one of the “et al.” on the Freeman paper and her “Getting under the hood” paper with Kelly Hogan is one of my favorites. Their paper shows that the structure instructors provide, in the design and delivery of the course, is critical. It’s not about content knowledge (“chemistry”). It’s not even about pedagogical content knowledge (“how people learn chemistry”). It’s about teaching and learning. And that’s why I’m so thrilled Sarah agreed to give the conference keynote, “End of Lecture? Active learning increases student achievement.” Yeah, and I got to ask her!
This is the 13th annual conference and my colleagues here at UBCO have running this conference down to a fine art. Need this done? Here. Need that done? Yep, no problem. It’s so smooth, sometimes people don’t notice what just happened. I’ve got fresh eyes, though, and I’m forcing myself (and my patient and generous colleagues) to critique “That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It.” I’m looking forward to sharing some new practices and events with the campus and conference attendees. Like
a Programming Committee to review and select proposals
a poster session
wine and cheese reception at the end of the first day, in the same time and place as the poster session
charging a conference fee
conference hashtag #everylearner17
Students and the Conference Registration Fee
I was having trouble thinking something through so, like I often do, I turned to my personal learning network on Twitter:
I don’t want registration fee to hinder students from attending and/or presenting at our teaching & learning conf #everylearner17 /2