check on learning

Checking for Understanding

Research shows that checking for understanding is perhaps one of the most important components of a teaching sequence. Most teachers provide instruction on a topic and follow up with some questions. On a good day, 4–5 students may volunteer and respond with the correct answers. The teacher then assumes that the majority of the class understands the concept and can handle a homework assignment. The teacher then moves on to the next topic.

The problem with this scenario is what the teacher concludes about the level of understanding within the class. Students who raise their hands are often more confident, verbal, or simply have better study habits. Many times, students who do not fully understand are reluctant to speak. Regardless, it is very difficult to informally assess the learning of an entire class based on the responses of only a few.

A variety of formative assessment strategies give teachers a better way to gauge the level of understanding within a class. For example, a teacher can ask students to answer several questions or do some problems displayed on a digital whiteboard. Then the teacher can collect students’ work and quickly see who gets it, who needs more practice, and who has no clue.

Checking for understanding is vital to facilitate true learning. When students are still unclear, confused, or misunderstanding, and are then assigned independent practice via a homework assignment, there is a greater risk that they’ll practice incorrect learning. Checking for student understanding can prevent this complication. Below are several strategies that instructors can use to check for student understanding, all of which have the added benefit of increasing student engagement.

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students in lecture hall

Low-Risk Strategies to Promote Active Learning in Large Classes

Faculty who teach large classes confront the long-existing challenge of making their lectures more engaging and meaningful. In this article, I will share some low-risk strategies to help faculty transform lectures into student-centered learning experiences for enhanced learning outcomes.

These active learning strategies can be easily implemented without significant redesign of the class and without an investment in technology. However, toward the end of the article, I offer a few tech-based strategies for engaging your students.

  • Use skeleton handout. Provide students with a handout of the day’s lesson, but intentionally omit some key words and phrases from the slides. Students will have to listen closely during class in order to fill in the missing pieces of information.
  • Physical movement. In a traditional lecture, faculty tend to stand at or behind the podium, interacting with the few students sitting near the front of the room. To engage the whole class, even those students who like to sit in the back, walk around in the classroom from time to time and work to draw in those students sitting on the periphery.
  • Pause and chunk (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987; Di Vesta & Smith, 1979). Researchers have told us that students have very short attention spans and start to lose focus after 10 to 15 minutes in the lecture. To keep students continuously engaged, it is suggested that you chunk the content into smaller segments. For instance, after lecturing for 15 or 20 minutes, switch gears by involving students in mini learning games/activities during the transitional break.
  • Effective questioning. Questioning is one of the most common engagement techniques used by faculty in their daily teaching practice, but have you noticed that it doesn’t always produce the intended outcomes? That’s because many don’t give questions the time and attention they deserve—during lesson planning and the class itself. Below are a few questioning tips to consider.
    • Ask meaningful questions. Factual recall questions are fine for getting the class warmed up, but it’s also important to ask questions at the higher levels of Bloom’s revised taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). Higher level questions force students to think critically about the content. Questions that have more than one good answer are more likely to lead to interactive discussion.
    • Give “wait time” (Elliot, 1996; Mills, 1995). After you ask a question, wait a few extra seconds before asking for volunteers. By extending the wait time, students have time to process their ideas and produce more thoughtful answers. This is especially beneficial to those who are reluctant to talk in the class. With a few extra seconds to think about and organize the talking points, they will be more confident in their response and more willing to participate.
    • Ask follow-up questions. Too often, after a student answers a question, the teacher explains why it is correct or incorrect and then continues to lecture. Although there is nothing wrong with this practice per se, it does mean we’re throwing away an opportunity to further engage students in higher level thinking. If further discussion is warranted, ask follow-up questions, probe for more information, ask for clarification, request an example, or have students explain the rationale for their answer. Some examples of follow-up questions include: why? what if? how do you know? or what is an example of that?

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flipped learning ideas

Don’t Just Flip—Unplug

Why “unplug” in the classroom?

In his book Teaching Naked, Jose Bowen challenges us to rethink the role of technology in our courses and be more intentional about when we use it, why we use it, and what our students do with it. Bowen (2012) explains, “Technology is most powerfully used outside of class as a way to increase naked, nontechnical interaction with students inside the classroom” (preface, p. x). Here are three reasons you might want to consider adding unplugged strategies to your classroom:

  • To increase focus. In my work, the FLIP means to “Focus on your Learners by Involving them in the Process” (Honeycutt 2013 & 2016a). When you FLIP, you focus on integrating active learning strategies and helping students achieve higher-level learning outcomes when they are in class with you and their peers. When your students disconnect from their devices for part of a lesson, they can connect with each other and work with the course material in a different way. They are focused on the task of solving a problem, organizing information, analyzing content, or creating something new.
  • To decrease distractions. In a 2013 study, undergraduate students reported using a device (phone, laptop, tablet) almost 12 times a day during class for nonclass activities (McCoy). Interestingly, in 2012, researchers found that students did not have to be the ones engaging in nonclass activities to be distracted. Students in view of a peer engaged in off-task activities scored 17 percent lower on a post-lecture comprehension test (Sana, Weston, and Cepeda, 2012).
  • To add value. One of the most common challenges faculty face when implementing flipped and blended instructional design models is how to encourage students to complete coursework outside of the in-person class time. Students need to know how their out-of-class work will be used in class. Bowen (2012) explains, “Nothing has more potential to eliminate boredom and create an incentive for a student to come to class prepared than a complete rethinking of the use of class time, overhauling it from a passive listening experience into a transformative learning environment” (p. 185).

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How to include introverted students in class discussions.

How to Include Introverts in Class Discussion

Would you prefer to go to a party with 50 exciting, brand-new people that you’ve never met before, or would you prefer to have dinner with an old, dear friend? You’ve probably guessed already that extroverts would prefer the party and introverts would prefer dinner with a friend. But what does this have to do, in particular, with learning and students in our classroom discussions? Temperament influences our preferences for learning, and introverts have particular preferences about how they would choose to learn.

Not only is it a matter of preference, but it’s also a matter of where introverts produce their best work and the conditions under which they are best suited for learning. Introverted students tend to be very comfortable with solitary learning. They’re comfortable doing their learning through reading, research, writing, and sitting in a large lecture hall listening to someone.

Introverts are usually quite happy being alone, so the kinds of learning that lets them participate on their own are within their comfort zone. It’s also typical of introverts to prefer to have some time to think before they speak. And in that thinking, they have an opportunity to sort out their thoughts, clarify their own thinking, and come to some creative kinds of thinking and some deep reflections.

Many introverts are comfortable using written formats to clarify their thinking. They like to write things down before they’re asked to share them, and those writing opportunities allow them to think through the subject before speaking. Knowing these preferences and understanding the kinds of learning strategies that bring about the best results for introverts is important to us as faculty members.

To sum up introversion, it’s really a matter of difference. A good analogy might be to think about the difference between left-handed people and right-handed people. One is not better than the other. One is not right, and the other is not wrong. They’re simply differences, but they’re differences that have implications. And as left-handed folks have had to try to learn how to live in a world that might be designed for right-handed people, so too do introverts in our classrooms sometimes struggle to feel like they should be more extroverted.

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student writing

Write with Your Students to Promote Writing-as-Thinking

The single greatest strategy that I know to stimulate classroom learning is to write with students at the beginning of class.

Consider your own pre-class ritual to see if writing with your students might profit you and them. In my classes, students funnel in to reach their seats. At the start of some classes, students yell, tease one another, and laugh about subjects unconnected to the class. One complains to another about a different class, “Well, I said to her it sounds like you’re telling me to rewrite the paper!” They both laugh.

In another class, students shuffle in quietly. Some place their heads on their desks. Some just stare out the window. Still others fidget. Another is worried about her sick cat back home.

Of course, I’m overgeneralizing. Often our classes exist in the spaces between these two extremes. But what’s common to all—I don’t think this constitutes overgeneralizing either—is that students don’t consider pre-class as the time to prepare for class. Instead, they tend to use it exclusively for out-of-the-classroom experiences, sending a few texts, checking the score to last night’s game, maybe studying for an examination. They don’t see the need for transitioning into learning.

I remember for a long time feeling powerless to get students “in the mood” to think about the subjects of the class when they arrive: to take out their ear buds, open their books, have their pens at the ready. Even worse, I empathized! I could understand why they see this opening time as theirs; only the final tock of the clock signals class starts and the inevitable, “I’m yours for just one hour” or however long the class lasts.

As teaching professors, I think we can forfeit those settling moments before class officially begins by providing something greater: showing students how we, as professors, need to think when class starts. But thinking is very hard to do. The brain may need retraining to begin thinking in different contexts (Oakley, 2014, p. 25).

Therefore, the best way to engineer “opening thinking” is to bring it in unawares: to show it by example so the intellectual gears start moving in the right direction as class begins, all without undue introductions, syllabus corrections, and directions. That trio deadens classroom enthusiasm quickly and leads us away from prolific writing.

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experiential education - hiking in the mountains

What Is Experiential Education?

For many years, I have tried to explain what experiential education (EE) is to my colleagues. In the process, I often found myself bogged down in the technical jargon of my discipline (outdoor and adventure education) as well as the writings of thinkers such as John Dewey. I’m writing here to clarify my own understanding of EE and to present a simple model that can be understood regardless of academic discipline. In doing so, I am hesitant to even use the phrase EE because I believe it represents sound educational pedagogy no matter what it’s called.

From my understanding and experience, at the heart of EE are three key elements: content, experience, and reflection. Central to effective EE is establishing a clear and relevant relationship between these three elements in our teaching practice; ideally, content, experience, and reflection are seamlessly intertwined. I imagine three overlapping circles with EE in that space where they overlap.

The traditional lecture course is an example of content-focused practice. A teacher delivers the content, and it is up to students to experience or reflect on it. I think it is fair to say that the shortcomings of content-only practices are well understood and that most teachers are trying to distance themselves from relying solely on this tradition.

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The Success of Four Activities Designed to Engage Students

How can we engage students who are enrolled in large courses so they become active learners? I used four activities designed to get students involved, support their efforts to learn, and personalize the material in an introductory psychology course. How well did they work? For analysis, I divided the 52 students in my course into four groups, or quadrants, using their final overall course scores to place them in high- to low-performance groups. Final course scores were computed as points on a scale of 1 to 100, which were then reported as letter grades. Then I looked at how involved students in each group were in the engagement activities. I’ll start with a description of each of the engagement activities and then provide a summary of how well each of these approaches engaged students in learning the course content..

Optional retake exams. There were three in-class exams (each worth 20 percent) and a final exam. Each exam included short-answer and essay questions. Students could opt to retake any or all of the three in-class exams. The retakes, administered electronically, were personalized. For questions that students missed on the exam, new versions of the questions appeared on their individually constructed retake exam. Retakes were therefore a mastery system that encouraged students to focus on those concepts they did not understand. Based on the retake scores, points were added, not subtracted.

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What does it mean. Questions about research.

The Questions to Ask about Research on Teaching and Learning

Faculty have access to more information about college teaching than ever before. Researchers have studied a host of instructional approaches and published results in myriad journals. Educators have shared summaries of and links to such studies informally on websites and through Twitter feeds. This is good news for those of us who want to learn more about a particular instructional method or technique before we try it in our own courses.

Not all of us are educational researchers, however, and that brings some challenges for making sense of these studies. The research questions and methods may not be as familiar to us as those in our home disciplines. Unfamiliar research approaches can make it challenging to determine how much stock to place in study findings. This challenge increases when different studies report mixed or contradictory results.

How can we assess the research quality? How can we determine whether a given instructional method is something worth trying in our courses? What follows is a set of questions that you can use when evaluating individual studies and collections of them. The goal of these questions is to help you glean information from research to consider whether or how to implement a pedagogical approach.

Is the research question one you want to know the answer to? Education researchers ask and answer questions that may or may not have practical application for our teaching. For example, although hundreds of researchers have asked whether active learning is superior to lecture, some of us are not particularly interested the answer. We don’t see lecture and active learning as an either/or proposition and instead believe that we can use both approaches together. What we might want to know instead are the combinations or particular features of lectures or active learning methods that make them more or less effective.

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active learning in the classroom

Active Learning: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology

In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that require students not only to do something, but also to think about what they have done. Moreover, many faculty have already incorporated into their teaching activities associated with active learning, such as interactive lectures, collaborative learning groups, and discussion-related writing tasks.

However, faculty may not be aware that, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the meaning of active learning is slightly different. According to cognitive psychology, active learning involves the development of cognition, which is achieved by acquiring "organized knowledge structures" and "strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems." (This particular definition is from a cognitive psychology text edited by Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School.) Additionally, active learning entails a process of interpretation, whereby new knowledge is related to prior knowledge and stored in a manner that emphasizes the elaborated meaning of these relationships.

Faculty interested in promoting this cognitively oriented understanding of active learning can do so by familiarizing their students with such cognitive active learning strategies as activating prior knowledge, chunking, and practicing metacognitive awareness.

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active learning in large classes

Quick In-Class Learning Activities to Build Student Engagement

The following are a few quick, easy, simple ways to engage students mentally, emotionally, or physically that do not require much planning and that you can do in almost any large class lecture. List them here and put this up in your office where you can see it to remind you to rotate these into your lectures.

  1. Think, pair, share (“Think about this, get with your neighbor, and share your thoughts…”)
  2. Concept expert (“One of you is responsible for reading [this], one for [that], and then get together and share/compare what you’ve learned”)
  3. Compare notes with your neighbor for clarity

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