Active learning workshop wrap-up

We have it on good authority that astronomy lectures are boring:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman

Maybe the astronomer would have held the poet’s attention, had he only done more to encourage active learning.

Last week, Dr. Kristi Concannon of the Department of Chemistry and Physics led a workshop in which she demonstrated and modeled some of what she does in her astronomy and physics classes to get students thinking , writing, and talking about course content.

It is commonly thought that science can only be taught effectively by the traditional lecture and problem-solving method. So many science classes are required for med school and other fields where students take standardized tests that it can seem like science faculty must work as hard as they can to “cover” as much material as possible. It’s true that there is no better way to cover a lot of material quickly than by lecturing on it.

But lecturing may not be the best way for students to learn course material. The idea behind promoting active learning is that the more class time students spend thinking, and not only listening, the more those patterns of thought will remain in their minds. It may be that “uncoverage” is more important than coverage.

All of the techniques Concannon demonstrated aim to get students to think through their answers to questions she poses, share those answers, and discover how to arrive at the right answers more readily.

An obstacle Concannon said she consistently needs to overcome is students’ unwillingness to answer a question, if they either suspect that they are wrong. What makes this obstacle even higher is students’ tendency to think that if few other students agree with their answer, then the answer must be wrong.

To foster discussion and give students more confidence in their answers, Concannon often has students do low-stakes in-class writing. She also uses the think-pair-share approach: Concannon asks a question, then gives students a moment to think about or write down an answer to the question, which they then explain to a nearby student. After some discussion in pairs, Concannon asks a student to share his or her partner’s answer with the rest of the class. From here, discussion can open up to the whole class.

Concannon also frequently asks multiple-choice questions in class, having students hold up different-colored index cards to signal their answers. This approach does allow her to gauge the whole group’s understanding, but it still doesn’t completely get past the problem of peer pressure and shyness–what if you’re the one student holding up a yellow card, when everyone else is holding up a blue one?

Perhaps the ultimate technological solution to the problem of students’ shyness about sharing their answers and thought processes with each other is to use a classroom response system–clickers, coupled with TurningPoint software that is easily integrated with Microsoft PowerPoint.

With the clickers, Concannon’s students can log their answers to her questions and immediately see a graph that shows the number of students who gave each of the possible answers. Seeing that you are not the only one who selected an answer can give you confidence to explain your thinking to others.

All of these techniques amount to real-time assessment of student learning. Because Concannon can find out what the class as a whole is thinking (and not only what one or two are thinking), she can adjust her teaching on the fly, taking more time with the concepts that she knows the students in front of her are finding troublesome, and moving on when she knows they’ve got it.

Look here for more ideas about promoting active learning. If there’s anything you’re already doing to foster active learning, or if there’s anything you are thinking of trying this semester, let CELT know, whether in the comments below or by email. CELT can help you get things going.

Image by stock.xchng user dudzio / Creative Commons licensed


2 responses to “Active learning workshop wrap-up

  1. This put me in mind of a recent article on the Khan Academy ( — an online learning community and web resource that one middle school in Palo Alto, CA (the case study considered in the article), has been using to apparently great success. The founder’s idea was to “flip” the schoolday paradigm in just the direction that Kristi is working toward: instead of getting lectures in class and working problems at home, students get lectures at home (online) and work problems in class. (This is essentially the same concept that the CELT blog earlier noted from the prof who tries to ensure her students get “first contact” with material prior to the class meeting.) The instructor working with the Khan Academy program effectively becomes a coach or tutor, tracking each student’s progress on a given problem set on his/her own computer via a kind of whole-class dashboard, moving around the room and providing on-the-spot help as sticking points crop up.
    Interestingly, the Khan Academy apparently has far more online resources for math and science than for humanities subjects; the article suggests that the “flip” works better for material that readily feeds into the sorts of problem-solving activities that students can complete on a computer. (The other drawback noted in the article: students end up working for little computerized rewards–something like videogame levels–and may therefore be motivated *not* to try more challenging stuff so they can earn more Asteroid Merit Badges on the easy level.) I suppose the most typical “active learning” method used in the humanities classroom is the discussion. In light of Kristi’s strategies and the Khan Academy “flip,” I wonder if humanities profs should try to frame their discussions as problem-solving sessions. Or does the analogy just not apply?

  2. Here are some ways faculty at Penn State are flipping their classrooms: And here’s an Economist article on the Khan Academy: There’s probably lots of potential for turning humanities class sessions into problem sessions. Just as in science, there are in the humanities genuine questions about the cultural artifacts we study–why not give the students practice working through answers to controlled versions of those questions?