Monday, July 6, 2015

Active Learning Activities - Jean Pratt, Information Systems

Everyone knows that students learn at different paces. Not everyone knows how to effectively teach to this reality. Dr. Jean Pratt, Department of Information Systems, shares a technique she uses to make her activities relevant and engaging to all of her students, no matter what level of understanding they are currently on:

Setting: Regularly implemented in a 300-level course; 8 or 10 pods (depending on section) with 3-4 students per pod.

Purpose of the activity: Engage every student at whatever level of understanding he or she might be on the given learning objective.

Setup for the activity: Students are provided with "Your Turn" exercises based off instructional materials (usually a combination of PowerPoint slides with audio and supplemental lecture/explanation). The level of understanding in my courses tends to be bell curved, so the "Your Turn" exercises increased in difficulty level. One problem was that students on the upper level of the curve had already completed all the "Your Turn" exercises prior to class while students on the other end of the curve were still struggling with the basic exercises. One solution (from Cindy Albert) I had implemented was to have a repertoire of challenge exercises specific to the semester project so that upper-level students could apply directly to their project the learning from the lesson. That still works great, but students are all over the board with the content on which they're working and I lacked the ability to get a really good feel for students' level of understanding on each knowledge/skill. Don Gaber's suggestion: come to class prepared to tweak the existing "Your Turn" exercises. Provide a twist—something that wasn't covered in the PowerPoint slides or the lecture. For example, introduce a "yes, but what if…" scenario where the student has to think beyond the existing scenario and apply the knowledge/skills to a similar (but slightly different) scenario that extends current understanding.

How the activity unfolded in the classroom:
  • Students: Since the whole class is working on some version of the same problem, my informal perception is that students are more open to help—perhaps not as embarrassed at being so far behind in comparison to other students. The same PowerPoint slide is displayed on the big screens, but where students are related to their working with that exercise differs. More "Oh! I get it now!" comments and more demonstrated code/text/diagrams. I really believe that the underperforming students are more at ease now (or perhaps I am!). My perceptions of the upper performing students are that they are strengthening their independent learning skills as they have to search for the answers and they are more engaged, since the tweaked exercise is something they could only get by being in class.
  • Instructor: The whole class flows better now as students work through regular, tweaked and/or project challenge questions. As I kneel down between 2-3 students to work Socratically through either the regular or tweaked exercises, I am able to meet students where they are better than I was when students were all on different exercises. The upper performing students are challenged with the extensions while the underperforming students are grasping the basics. Once the upper performing students complete the tweaked exercises, they move on to the project-specific challenge questions but then come back and rejoin the class on the next regular/tweaked exercise.

After the activity: Are they [students] demonstrating an increased (relative to previous) understanding of knowledge skills? Demonstrated understanding is either through verbal explanation of what and why or physical illustration of code, text or diagram.

Additional comments from the instructor:
  • The activity is actually an "approach" and so was applied to each individual/group activity, where appropriate.
  • Credit for this goes to Don Gaber, who shared this approach during one of the Active Learning COP group discussions. I tried it the next day and have been incorporating it into as many activities as possible since then.
  • I absolutely love this approach.

Tip Provided by: Jean Pratt
Write-up by: Jon Pumper

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