Syllabus Season Pro Tips Part II: Active Learning

Syllabus writing season, for me, can be a bit of a bittersweet exercise. Sort of like Tom Hanks in the beginning of You've Got Mail, I love the beginning of fall and continue to be optimistic that this academic year will be better than the last. At the same time, in order to get there, I have to think about what worked and what didn't work in my classes. Reading student evaluations is a part of that process (more on that tomorrow). But so is my own self-assessment, which can be just as frustrating but for different reasons. I'm constantly wondering how I could have taught an event or idea better.

So active UNI Honors students and I left the classroom
to discuss the U.S. and Global Islam outside (Fall 2017)
Whether I'm teaching a new course or a course in my regular rotation, I like to try new things. This is a direct result of my time at FSU. Like any grad program with a strong institutional memory or social cohort, we shared teaching strategies and swapped stories about what worked and what didn't. At the time, trying new assignments (like Emily Suzanne Clark's use of the "unessay") or new points of reference (like Charlie McCrary and Mike Graziano's focus on law, parts I & II) was a helpful way to find my own style and preferred strategies. To me, this blog was an important extension of that community of shared discovery as, for example, Mike Altman, Paul Harvey, and Kelly Baker shared their use of Twitter and social media in the classroom or Monica Mercado shared her syllabus for a course on Sex and Sexuality in Modern U.S. History. Over time, seeking new ideas and approaches became a part of how I think about and approach teaching in general. It helps me see "old" courses in new ways and, hopefully, sharpen my teaching skills.

One way my teaching has changed since graduate school is that I have incorporated more "student-centered" active learning into my classes. What I've learned along the way is that this language is more intimidating than actually implementing it. Simply, I have an active learning classroom when my students do stuff during class time other than take notes of my lectures. I haven't abandoned lectures nor have I written them off as ineffective forms of teaching [I still find value in lectures], but I have yielded more lecture time to other learning activities in the classroom. It seems kind of counter intuitive, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. In graduate school I preferred to lecture because I was developing my own mastery of the material, but giving up on content-delivery and giving up the front-and-center position in the classroom was one way I demonstrated greater mastery of the material and the classroom. My students and I didn't need my lectures like I thought we did. In fact, when I started to read more about it, I realized my students were already doing more active learning than I realized.

The hard part was merely deciding what to do instead of lecturing. So many things "count" as active learning, some useful and some I find to be pretty corny. But, you should decide for yourself. Here are some helpful lists:
  • Vanderbilt, Center for Teaching, Active Learning
    • Think-Pair-Share: This one is pretty straightforward. You ask the class a question and have them write it down or just think to themselves. Next, have students turn to a neighbor talk about their answer as pairs. Depending on the class size you can have the pairs find another pair to discuss as a small group. Then, have the pairs or groups share their response with the class. At UNI, students tend to be very shy and reserved so TPS is something I do from day 1. It can be near impossible for some of my students to feel brave enough to answer an open-ended question on their own, so TPS allows students to share their thoughts while delivering it as what the group talked about. Plus, once students talk to one another it's pretty clear that they weren't the only ones who came to a particular conclusion. Much less risk of being embarrassed.
    • Student Generated Test Questions: Again, pretty straightforward. As a part of a review day or review activity, have students write example questions for the exam. When I do this, I usually have students (working in groups) write a mid-term or final exam essay question based on what they think the major themes or questions of the class have been. It's a great assessment of your teaching and their learning. If everything is going well, then most students won't have a problem identifying major themes of a unit or the whole course. Plus, it can give you sense of how prepared they are to answer an essay question. Are they writing essay questions at a higher level of difficulty than you intended? lower? on par? Your assessment of their review session can give you a sense of class performance before students take the exam.
  • Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, Active Learning: 
    • Jigsaw: This is a favorite of mine, but it does take some planning, explanation, and practice, but once students "get it" they can move through the activity on their own. How's it work? Divide students into small groups. I often do this when I have multiple short readings (like different primary sources on the same event). As a small group, students discuss the readings (like "What happened?") with each student in the group focusing on something different (becoming an "expert" in one source's point of view). After a set amount of time, the designated "experts" leave their original group and discuss finer points with other "experts" in their topic ("What factors affected this source's POV?"). After a set amount of discussion time, students go back to their original groups and revisit the original question. This way students get an opportunity to examine the topic from a big picture and fine grain perspective.
      • Did that not make any sense? Watch this video instead.
      • Alternative: When I have a dense reading with multiple concepts I want students to know (e.g. a challenging journal article or chapter), I start class by dividing students into "expert" groups with their own retrieval/review question and set amount of time to discuss (eg. What is the argument? What is the source base? What's at stake? etc.). At the end of the allotted time, students form new groups so that there is an expert in each review question at the table and they inform each other of what they had talked about in their "expert" group (one person can talk about the thesis, the sources, what's at stake, etc.) After all that we have a full class discussion, moving beyond understanding the reading to analyzing it together.
  • NDSU, Active Learning Activities
    • Ticket to Leave: I don't do this one, but one of my colleagues does so I thought I'd include it. For this strategy, leave some time toward the end of class for students to reflect on the day's material or answer a question related to it. They have to hand it in order to leave. The idea is that you can have a quick assessment on your teaching and whether or not students go it. The main reason I don't do this is because I don't want the germs paper, but of course this is something a Google Form could fix (and there's a template that already exists).   
  •  last but not least, Cult of Pedagogy, The Big List of Discussion Strategies
    • If you're looking to spice up class discussion, I highly suggest Cult of Pedagogy's Big List, which is helpfully divided between high and low prep strategies. I also just recommend Cult of Pedagogy in general. It's geared toward elementary and secondary ed teachers, but many of the strategies and tips are applicable in higher ed (like for new teachers).
Now I certainly don't think everyone needs to incorporate active learning into their classroom. If you read and follow The Professor is In, then you know Karen Kelsky's first step to a strong tenure file is "understanding the economy of value at your specific institution." This makes a lot of sense beyond tenure-track faculty; adjuncts, grad students, independent scholars--all of us, really--should know what "counts" as doing well at work. Besides the fact that I genuinely like teaching and enjoy trying new teaching strategies, I work at a teaching-emphasis institution that values continuous teaching development, especially with regard to active learning. So, experimenting with new techniques in the classroom and reflecting on what worked and what didn't and why is valued where I work. That isn't necessarily the case for everyone. And that's OK.

In general, though, I would caution everyone--especially grad students who are instructors of record--not to try too many new things all at once. There are so many overwhelming things about teaching for the first time--or really, teaching until you develop your own "standard" approach, whatever that may be--that you want to give yourself the opportunity to develop a style before you start changing it. Judicious incorporation of the techniques above can be one way to figure it out. And, if you find yourself interviewing for a job at a teaching-emphasis university like mine, some familiarity with active learning--even if it is only something you tried once but are willing to learn more about--can go a long way in demonstrating that you "fit" as a teacher-scholar.


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