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Lessons on Active Learning

By Barb Ericson

On 2/18/2010 I went to a talk on getting students involved in classes even if there are 200 of them in the class. It was about active learning, and not surprisingly it used active learning during the talk. I really enjoyed the talk and learned some things from it.

* Students will listen best after the first 5 minutes of class and up to about 10-15 minutes tops. They are busy getting settled for the first 5 minutes do they don't pay much attention then. After 10-15 minutes, you will lose most people's attention during a lecture.
* You can re-engage the students by making them think at least every 15 minutes. You can do this is a variety of ways. One way is to ask the students what the next step is in what you are doing if you are demonstrating something. You can also give them a handout that has questions that they have to answer. You can ask one person to explain to the person next to them what you just said. You can ask the students to think about a problem and talk about it with the person next to them.
* You also need them to believe that they may be called on to report what they think. Don't just ask for volunteers. Pick at least 3-4 students to report and then you can also take volunteers. Pick different students each time.

I have had to lecture to 300 students at a time and it is hard to keep them awake. Some of the things that I figured out on my own are:
* Don't stay up on the stage (or front of the classroom). Wander around. People have to look at you when you get close to them.
* Don't ask if there are any questions. There are, but nobody wants to admit that they have questions. If I can, I walk around the room when I have assigned a project and ask how things are going. Then I get lots of questions.
* Repeat things. When I show how to do something I undo it and show it again. This is especially important if I have people following along.

When I lecture, I try to keep the lecture part very short (10-15 minutes tops). Then I always have an assignment that incorporates what I just talked about.

I am currently helping in an AP CS A class and I do very few lectures. I give the power point slides that I normally use in a lecture to the students to read and then mostly assign active work in class. I am doing things this way in part because I can't be at the class everyday (I help on Monday and Friday and usually also on Wednesday) so I can't lecture as often I would. It is also partly because the projector doesn't work very well and students wouldn't be able to see what I am doing. I the ask the students to apply what they should have learned from the powerpoint slides (and book).

This approach seems to be working very well for the top and middle students in the class. But, we have a group of students who are way behind. Some of them are trying, but are just moving much more slowly than the rest of the class. Some students, however, simply don't try and do very little of the work.

I once had to give a lecture that I prepared powerpoint slides for and the projector didn't work. So, I consulted my slides, but mostly just talked and wrote on the board. Students afterward told me that it was a great lecture. So, I am trying to reduce the amount that I actually use powerpoint slides. You can just give out handouts with complex drawings on them or just use a few slides.

What have you learned from what you have tried in your classrooms?

Barb Ericson
Georgia Tech

The url for the class I am helping with is http://coweb.cc.gatech.edu/ice-gt/1043


It's very interesting to see active learning being tried in classrooms as big as 200-300 students. I always thought active learning was hard to scale, but it seems you found some pretty good ways to get students engaged. I really like the observations you've made regarding time. It really helps when planning a lecture that the first five minutes of it will probably not be digested very well. Just as important, is knowing when to put the most important material in your lecture, during the peak of student attention.

A lot of your techniques for keeping students attentative are really good, but as you said, there are always some downfalls, specially with the lower tier of students.

One point that you mentioned stood out to me in terms of possible improvement:

"* Don't ask if there are any questions. There are, but nobody wants to admit that they have questions. If I can, I walk around the room when I have assigned a project and ask how things are going. Then I get lots of questions."

This is something that we hear all the time and I'm really glad you found a decent solution for it. My only concern is that you've sort of shifted the teaching from one-to-many, to one-to-one. That's great for the student getting the one on one attention, however, what about other students who might have similar questions? Do you take the question from students and then step back to explain it to everyone, or do you just explain it to him and keep walking around addressing any other issue? Also, unless you weave yourself in-between every student, how are you guaranteeing that you've hit all the questions? Even the weaving approach is impossible in a lecture style hall where you can't really walk in-between desks, so you have students sitting at the center of the rows getting neglected (usually the same students every time since people tend to get attached to their seat very quickly).

So how can we resolve these issues? The main concern is trying to get everyone's question up for discussion. I can think of a couple of ways of doing this off the top of my head, some involving technology, and some not.

This is something that I noticed while attending an online lecture. They had a real-time chat system for people watching the lecture online to ask questions. If we're dealing with a lecture hall with computers in it, I think this would be a great way to cover all possible questions that students may have. It would be anonymous, and you can discuss the questions with everyone. Of course you have to worry about kids spamming the thing, but I have a feeling that the spammers would get bored of it quickly, specially if you don't react to it (I could be wrong, it would be nice to see someone try this out in a real classroom).

Another way that I thought of would, unfortunately, not be in real-time, but could be used concurrently with the method Barb uses above. You could simply have a container right by the exit door. Just tell students that if they have any questions/concerns throughout the lecture, simply to write them down on a piece of paper and before they leave, to drop it in the container. The disadvantage with this is that it is not real-time feedback, but you at least get a chance to see all the questions that are arising throughout your lecture and can go over them in the next one.

Anyways, those are my thoughts. I'd love to hear anyone's opinion on them, or perhaps, even better ideas than the ones I proposed.

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