class participation

Class Participation: What Behaviors Count?

What counts for participation isn’t always addressed when we talk with students about the importance of participation. It’s easy to assume that everybody knows what’s involved—but is that a safe assumption?

When considering what qualifies as participation, some behaviors come to mind quickly—asking questions, answering questions, and making comments. But are those the only options? Maybe interaction in our courses would improve if we broadened the definition and considered some alternatives.

The behaviors that most often count as participation relate to verbal communication—what students say. And we all know that some students, close to 50% according to most studies, are very reluctant to say anything. With broader, more inclusive definitions, we might make it easier for shy, fearful, and reticent students to learn how to answer confidently when they are called on and how to speak up in a discussion when they have something of value to contribute.

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students not engaged

The Flipped Classroom: Strategies to Overcome Student Resistance and Increase Student Engagement [Transcript]

The flipped classroom model encourages students to complete preliminary work prior to class so they are prepared to engage in higher-level learning experiences during class. But what happens when students don’t do the preclass work and aren’t prepared to participate?

This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the flipped classroom model, and you may consider abandoning the approach completely. But there are strategies you can use to address these challenges and increase students’ motivation to come to class prepared and ready to engage.

Dr. Barbi Honeycutt, founder of FLIP It Consulting and an expert on the flipped classroom, provides strategies you can use to create a successful flipped learning experience for you and your students.

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Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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Learning the Lessons of Silence

“The lessons of silence.” I found these four words in Lao Zi’s book, the Tao Te Ching. I have been ruminating over them lately. In our modern society, more and more individuals fear stillness. In our classrooms, fewer students appreciate the sound of silence. Their faces light up when I give animated lesson presentations but wilt whenever I ask them to pause and think about the ideas we have just considered. Outside my classroom, I seldom see them minus headphones, earbuds, or cell phones. They (and some of the rest of us) have yet to learn that the most profound ideas are born in moments of silence.

In my teaching, it is in the moment of silence where I come to understand whether students are learning or not. It is when the whole class stares at me in silence that I realize I need to rephrase my question. It is when a student pauses while reciting that I see some concepts I’ve taught are not yet clear. It is when a student does not say anything but smiles sweetly that I know my ideas made an impression. It is in the silence of my classroom after the last student has left when I reflect on my own teaching that I better understand how to impact their learning. It is in the silence of my office after typing the last sentence in my manuscript that I learn to think deeply about what I have just written. There is an analogy that perfectly captures all of this for me: it is the silence that follows the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Those notes are meaningless unless one appreciates the sound of silence that surrounds them.

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Forming and Managing Effective Team-Based Learning Teams

On the first day of class, when I'm introducing Team-Based Learning to my students, I often hear a few groans. I ask the students how many have been involved in team work or group work before. I ask the ones who have for some pros and cons. One of the most common “cons” is the problem of freeloaders in the team--students who will sit back and let the others do the work and who will receive the same grade as the rest, regardless of the effort that they have put forth.

Many students complain about the difficulty of finding time to get together with their team. That truly is a problem these days, when many of our students are working and/or have families. Unfortunately, the students who don’t have those kind of demands on their time often tend to blame the ones who do for being unable to make it to the meetings.

My students have also observed that cliques tend to form in the classroom and frequently within their team. They may have found that some students on the team are overly assertive and forceful in their opinions, while many are much less assertive and opinionated but just as likely to have correct answers.

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time to evaluate

A Solution to the Free Rider Problem in Group Activities

Group activities are an excellent way to improve student learning in an online course. But they invariably raise the free-rider problem—the student who does not contribute his or her fair share of the effort. This is particularly bothersome to students when there is one group grade for all members of a group. While there is a real-world value to giving a group grade since many activities in life are evaluated on a team basis, there is an issue of fairness in the students’ minds. This leaves the faculty member with the unenviable choice of using a group grade and having to deal with student complaints about free riders, or using an individual grade and being unable to accurately distinguish one student’s contribution from another. Kadriye O. Lewis, professor of Pediatrics at the UKMC School of Medicine, came up with a solution by creating an “Intra-Group Member Peer and Self-Evaluation” to assess individual performance.

Dr. Lewis uses a variety of small group activities in her classes that involve one or two weeks of work each, with the results posted to a discussion board area for class deliberation. Groups are scrambled every few weeks in order to give students a chance to work with others. At the end of each group activity, all group members fill out an evaluation on every other group member’s participation. Each student answers a variety of questions about the other students on a traditional Likert scale from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. The topics include:

  • Keeping abreast of group progress
  • Sharing ideas
  • Completing tasks on time
  • Attending meetings
  • Demonstrating respect for others
  • Contributing to group discussions

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Ten Study Strategies for Students and Their Teachers

Here’s one of those articles that really shouldn’t be missed, particularly for those with interest in making teaching and learning more evidence-based. Current thinking about evidence-based teaching and learning tends to be more generic than specific. Use any active learning strategy intermittently or even regularly, and some would call the teaching evidence-based. That’s a superficial understanding of what it means to use practices that have been proven to promote learning. This article leads to a deeper level of understanding.

It’s a review of mostly cognitive psychology research that explores 10 learning techniques. The cognitive psychologist authors provide the background. “Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement and with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective.” (p. 5)

Here are brief descriptions of the 10 learning strategies reviewed in the article.

  • Elaborative interrogation—generating an explanation for why some fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation—explaining how new information is related to what is already known, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization—writing summaries of text content to expedite learning the material
  • Highlighting/underlining—marking potentially important text passages while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic—using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for text—attempting to form mental images of text material while reading or listening
  • Rereading—reading text material again after having read it initially
  • Practice testing—self-testing or taking practice tests on the material to be learned
  • Distributed practice—scheduling practice so that it spreads study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice—mixing different kinds of problems or materials within a single study session

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Actively Learning to Teach

Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.

With active learning, we often discuss the culture shock that students feel. No longer is it sufficient for students to sit listening as passive consumers of information doled out by their instructor. An active learning class compels students to become actively engaged in applying the material and uncovering the consequences of their newly learned knowledge. But for those of us instructors who never had active learning modeled for us as students, the experience can be just as alien. It can be invigorating, as it was today when my students were working hard to understand the biochemical logic of the reactions. But for me, it also felt like was I wasn’t doing my job. I was reminded of those comments on my end-of-term course evaluations: “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!”

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Why Students Resist Active Learning

The recent decades have seen growing faculty interest in learning. Increasingly, teaching is being understood in terms of how well it promotes and facilitates learning. Faculty are more familiar than ever with the evidence that favors active learning over lecture. And although many still lecture, most instructors acknowledge that they should be using more active learning. Change comes slowly to higher education, but it does come.

What hasn’t kept pace with changing faculty attitudes and practices is student interest in and understanding of themselves as learners. Student resistance to active learning is regularly reported. Part of this is resistance for understandable reasons. Active learning means more work for students. They aren’t getting a neat, comprehensive package of teacher-generated examples, but are having to come up with their own. They aren’t watching the teacher solve all the problems, but are being put into groups to collectively work on the problems. Passive learning is easier than active learning, but then passivity doesn’t always result in learning, especially learning that lasts and knowledge that can be applied.

Students also resist because active learning isn’t always effectively designed. Neither are lectures, but when the teacher drones on and the content wanders from here to there, students can tune out and pretend that they’re listening. Working with others to discuss what they need to know from the reading isn’t all that productive when group members are prepared to varying degrees and the discussion occurs without some teacher-provided context. Objections to poorly designed and implemented active learning are justified.

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Principles for the Professional Growth of Teaching: A Collection of Resources

New Approaches, Instruments and Emphases

Eddy, S. L., Converse, M., and Wenderoth, M. P., (2015).  PORTAAL:  A classroom observation tool assessing evidence-base teaching practice for active learning in large science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.  Cell Biology Education, 14 (Summer), 1-16.
Identifies best practices in active learning and designs an observational tool that can be used to document the extent to which instructors incorporate these practices in their classrooms.

Hoon, A., Oliver, E., Szpakowska, K., and Newton, P., (2015).  Use of the Stop, Start, Continue method is associated with the production of constructive qualitative feedback by students in higher education.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40 (5), 755-767.
A simple feedback mechanism improved the quality of student provided feedback.

Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H. M., Gilbert. S. L., and Weiman, C. E. (2013).  The classroom observation protocol for undergraduate STEM (COPUS):  A new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices.  Cell Biology Education, 12, (Winter), 618-625.
Focuses on what students are doing and what the instructor is doing at 2 minute intervals during a class.  Does not offer judgments but identifies behaviors.  At 1.5 hours of training, observations are reliable. Can be used in individual faculty, departments and/or institutions.

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