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