March 19th, 2010

Putting Students in Charge of Finding Real-World Examples Makes for a More Engaging Classroom

By:

As a marketing professor, I often found myself scouring publications, stores, and my cabinets prior to a lecture, to find real-world examples of concepts I was teaching. Although students seemed to appreciate and learn from these examples, it didn’t get them as actively involved in their learning as I’d like.

Several years ago, I modified my technique and now require students to read the chapter and bring in an example themselves, before I lecture on the material. Sometimes I give them a specific topic from the chapter to illustrate; other times I allow them to pick any topic from the chapter. I had two logistical issues to resolve in order to make the new technique viable: 1) How could I allow all students to share their work without using too much class time? and 2) How could I encourage students to complete this assignment?

To allow all students to share their work, I divide them into groups of four or five at the beginning of class. Once in their groups, students follow these rules: 1) Use six to seven minutes to have each group member share an example within the group; 2) Use another three to four minutes to pick the example that best illustrates the concept; and 3) Select someone other than the person whose example was picked to share that example with the class. Then one person from each group quickly shares the group’s “best example” with the whole class. Sometimes they’ll even pull up websites illustrating their examples or show the products themselves. In total, this exercise takes about 20 minutes.

The approach has several advantages. First, it allows students time to warm up and get focused on the day’s material. Second, somewhat surprising to me, students come to class proud of their examples and excited about sharing them. They are engaged in the learning. Third, I get some excellent examples of products and services of interest to students, and I don’t have to spend any time finding them. Finally, students have an opportunity to share and build relationships with classmates, creating a better learning environment.

To ensure that students do the assigned work prior to class, sometimes I require the students to bring properly formatted letters to class explaining why they think their examples are good ones. Early in the semester, I collect and grade these letters for content, writing skills, and format; however, after the initial expectation is set, I choose to collect and grade the letters randomly. Other times, students post their explanations to the course discussion board at least one hour before class. Students are not allowed to post an example already posted by another student. This way, if students don’t quite understand the concept, they can read and learn from other students before picking their selection. Again, I grade these postings the first couple of times during the semester and then only randomly thereafter.

A third approach, which involves even less grading, allows students to do the work for a maximum number of bonus points. I am continually amazed at how much time and effort students will put into bonus assignments for a minimal number of points. If students opt not to complete the assignment for bonus points, they can still participate in a group, learn from their classmates’ examples, help to pick the best one, and maybe even present it to class.

I most like this approach because it takes the responsibility for learning and places it where it belongs—with the student—in a fun, nonthreatening, and interesting way.

Karen Welte Gore is a Professor of Business Administration at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, Evansville campus.

Excerpted from Students Bring Real-Life Examples to Class, The Teaching Professor, October 2006.