Learning about Active Learning Online

Regular readers know that I teach a lot online. I’ve been teaching online for the better part of the last fifteen years and have designed and taught online classes for most of that time. I co-authored a book on blended learning in the sciences and even acted as an external reviewer for a college who was starting a fully online program. I’ve also researched online teachers’ efficacy for teaching in online environments. Put a little differently, online learning is sort of my jam.

I’m not saying all of this to document my resume or to pat myself on the back or anything. More than that, I’m laying the foundation for the dissonance I’ve been experiencing lately. While I’ve taught online for years, most of that experience has been through asynchronous means. Sure, each semester, I’d teach a few synchronous classes, especially as part of my hybrid and blended courses. But now, I’m teaching several synchronous classes every week and that’s given me the opportunity to explore different strategies and learn more about the synchronous learning environment. Since I’m a big believer in the power of active learning in my face-to-face classrooms, I’ve been working to replicate those strategies in my synchronous space. As a college instructor, I’m a proponent of Chickering and Gamson, who write:

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

So, that has been my goal for my synchronous classes for the last nine or ten weeks. And here’s what I’ve learned about active learning online.

Synchronous spaces require extended wait time.
In my face-to-face classes, I found that the traditional 3-5 seconds of wait time was enough to prompt student response. Maybe with really challenging questions, I’d wait a little longer. But in my synchronous classes, I find I need to wait a lot longer to elicit a response. In some classes, I find myself waiting ten or more seconds before students will respond. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. In one class, I’ve even started using Wheel of Names to call on students randomly. It’s not ideal but it helps to keep students engaged in the active learning process.

Synchronous classes change how I group students.
For most of my face-to-face classes, I found that a group of 3-4 students was the ideal size for most tasks. A group that size promotes interaction and diverse thought while also diminishing the chances for students who are unwilling (or unprepared) to contribute. In my synchronous classes, I’m finding that five students is more optimal. With the technical challenges that some of my students are facing, smaller groups increase the likelihood that a student will be partnered with one or two students who can’t (or won’t) contribute. Which would really defeat the purpose of active learning if the student is in a three-person group.

Some active learning strategies don’t translate well to synchronous spaces.
I’ve given up using think-pair-shares in my synchronous classes this semester. While this was one of mt favorite ways to promote discussion in my face-to-face classes, it is cumbersome and ineffective in Zoom. The group size is too small (see above) and it takes too much time to orchestrate. But I’ve found other strategies work really well. For example, I’ve had a lot of success with jigsaw activities where different groups of students are assigned different readings before class. During class, I place students in breakout rooms where they first discuss the reading with other students who were assigned the same material. After a few minutes of discussion, I rearrange the breakout groups to partner students with peers who were assigned other readings. By design, jigsaws promote more interdependence which can help motivate students to prepare and be more engaged participants in class.

I’ve also found “popcorn” style discussions are pretty effective. In a popcorn activity, I call on a student to respond to a prompt.  After responding, that student calls on another who responds before calling on another student. And so on.  Since students are calling on their peers by name, it’s a great way to get more people involved and helps to foster community in class. Beyond active learning activities, “popcorns” are great ways to engage students in ice breaker discussions at the start of class.

In a synchronous space, students need to create artifacts collaboratively.
In a typical face-to-face class, I’d break the class into different student groups, give them a cognitive task to complete and tell them to be ready to respond when the return. Sometimes, I’d give the student groups markers and a poster board to create an artifact to share with the rest of the class. But in my synchronous classes, I’m finding I need to have them collaborate on a digital artifact with almost every group discussion. Most times, I create a Google Slide deck and assign each breakout group to a different slide to gather their ideas. Besides giving the students a space to gather their ideas, it also allows me to monitor each group’s progress. I can view the slides in “grid view” and see the work that each group is doing. I can then jump into breakout rooms that seem to be struggling with the task.

Two-way communication is critical.
In a typical face-to-face group discussion, I’d stop the groups midway through their conversations to ask about their progress and to see if they had questions. That’s really challenging in Zoom. I can broadcast a message to individual groups but they can’t respond back. They can “ask for help” but, unless I’m in their breakout rooms, they can’t talk with me. To correct this, I’ve set up a Back Channel chat which allows for constant back and forth conversation while the students are in breakout rooms. The tool also allows me to poll the groups and share files.

Perceptions and Reality

Across the years, I’ve written about the value of active learning numerous times. In 2014, I wrote about a comprehensive meta-analysis on STEM-related college classes. The study compiled data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses and found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning. Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments. Based on the reported participation numbers across the studies, the researchers estimated “there would be over $3,500,000 in saved tuition dollars for the study population, had all students been exposed to active learning.”

I’m returning to this 2014 post and research because of a recent study that was published in Science (and reported on the Faculty Focus blog). Described as the “largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” the study monitored almost 550 faculty teaching 700 courses at 25 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The results were pretty alarming. 55% of the STEM classroom interactions involved lecture-based instruction. Faculty Focus interviewed one of the researchers, Marilyne Stains for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and discussed some of the findings. In the post, Stains discussed how their research used direct observation over self-reported surveys.

“Surveys and self-reports are useful to get people’s perceptions of what they are doing,” Stains said. “If you ask me about how I teach, I might tell you, ‘I spend 50 percent of my class having students talk to each other.’ But when you actually come to my class and observe, you may find that it’s more like 30 percent. Our perception is not always accurate.”

And that’s where the study and the Faculty Focus article offer some assistance. In their research, Stains and her colleagues used a tool called COPUS (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM) to conduct their observations. The tool was funded by the National Science Foundation and is available for free online so instructors can study their own instructional practices. There are even instructions for collecting data and a video to improve inter-rater reliability.  A motivated STEM instructor could have a colleague or two observe their classroom and better identify how their classes are actually taught. In the study, the researchers suggest conducting at least four observations to provide “a reliable characterization of instructional practices.”

Another interesting finding from the study was that despite faculty identifying classroom layout and class size as being barriers to implementing active learning strategies, “flexible classroom layouts and small course sizes do not necessarily lead to an increase in student-centered practices.” Looking at the data, regardless of the classroom physical layout, didactic instructional strategies were employed in most of the observed lessons. Considering the overwhelming research on the academic benefits for active learning, I find this shocking. But so do the researchers. At the end of the article, they call for institutions to challenge “the status quo” and to revise “their tenure, promotion, and merit-recognition policies to incentivize and reward implementation of evidence-based instructional practices.”  And that’s a great starting point but I wonder whether it’s enough.

I’m reminded of another blog post I shared in 2016 where I discussed “alternative frameworks” and their impact on people’s beliefs and actions. In science, these alternative frameworks impact how we teach different concepts. For instance, I can tell students thousands of times that gravity acts on heavy and light object the same way and that they fall (and accelerate) at the same rates when air resistance is disregarded. But their alternative frameworks get in the way. Their lived experiences have taught them differently and me telling them doesn’t change their perceptions.

In a way, that’s what has happened with the active learning research. Despite hearing about the benefits of active learning, teachers perceive that lecture works better and me them won’t change their teaching. Using promotion, tenure and merit-recognition systems to force teachers to employ student-centered teaching may change their actions but won’t change their perceptions of how students learn. Maybe the COPUS system could be used to support a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning study so faculty and departments can research how using active learning strategies impact student performance. It’s a little harder than just telling (or forcing) people to change their practice but, in the long run, it may confront both the perceptions and the reality of their work.

Resources for Teaching Larger Classes

I received an email from a colleague recently asking about resources for teaching larger classes. Clearly, teaching larger classes presents unique challenges that smaller classes do not. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re only able to lecture to them. Here are some resources to help you better engage students and support their learning in your larger class.

Think like a tutor. This advice comes from a Faculty Focus post written by Dr. Maryellen Weimer, author of Learner-Centered Teaching. Rather than offering a list of teaching strategies for working with students in large classes, Weimer takes a different approach and discusses the qualities that instructors of large classes need to embrace. Weimer advises that professors of large classes need to be nurturant, socratic, progressive, indirect, reflective, and encouraging. While the post doesn’t provide specifics about how to navigate the challenges of large classrooms, it offers a mindset for how to accomplish this task successfully.

Focus on effective strategies. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University houses a treasure trove of strategies for teaching large classes. They recognize that in some situations teaching a large class can feel like managing “a small city.” In their teaching guide, they offer practical strategies for taking attendance, dealing with cheating, integrating technology and grading student work.

Make it active. Can active learning work in large classrooms?  Absolutely. Check out this research that was published in Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal. Physics professors incorporated peer instruction strategies in classes with more than 200 students and found significant improvements over traditional, lecture-based instruction. In focus group interviews, students in the large classes reported that they “love the Physics classes because they’re actually good fun.” Rather than sitting silently and taking notes, students in peer instruction environments interact with their classmates to help make sense of the material.  As one student commented, “that’s when I learn the most. That is revolutionary.”

Mix it up. While peer instruction is one effective active learning strategy for large classrooms, there are others that work too.  In this article from Cell Biology, the authors share seven active learning strategies that can be infused specifically in large-enrollment classroom.  While the article leans heavily on science-related topics, the strategies can be successfully implement in almost any course.

Find what works for you. That’s the advice from Dr. Sallie M. Ives, the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching at UNC Charlotte.  She writes, “there is no one way to teach a large class. We have to take into account our teaching style, the characteristics of our students, and the goals and objectives of our course.” With these contexts in mind, Ives offers a Survival Handbook that provides practical solutions to managing the chaos that can sometimes occur in large classes.  Still need some help? Check out Tips for Teaching Large Classes written by Dr. Jenny Lloyd-Strovas from the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center at Texas Tech University.

 

Be More Stubborn

When my wife and I first became parents, we’d get lots of advice from experienced mothers and fathers on how best to raise kids.  Some would say things like “provide lots of structure” or “tired kids are happy kids” or “let them experience the natural consequences of their choices.”  As new parents, we waded through these pieces of wisdom, looking for the ones that best reflected the types of parents we hoped to become.  Across all of the advice we received, the one that my mother-in-law shared stands as the keystone to our roles as parents.

“Be more stubborn than your children.”

As most parents know, kids can be pretty stubborn.  Children can get fixated on a toy or an activity and scream and yell until they get their way.  And they can be resolved in their emotion and steadfast in their desire.  They want their way and they’re prepared to fight it out and create a fuss until their parents give in. But that’s when the “be more stubborn” parenting mantra needs to kick in.  If a parent gives in to every demand a child makes, long term, the child can become selfish or lack respect for their parents or become undisciplined.  Being “more stubborn” means having faith in your choice as a parent and waiting it out.  While the child is focused on the short game, as a parent, you need to focus on the long game.  It’s not always easy to wade through the cries, screams and temper tantrums but, in most cases, the resolve pays off.

I was reminded about this parenting mantra recently after a meeting with some colleagues.  We were discussing a class that one of us was teaching and how the students were resisting the teaching strategies that my colleague was employing.  As she explained the goals with her assignment and the strategies she was using, I tried to alleviate her self-doubt and explain that what she was doing was pedagogically sound.  Despite her students’ resistance, my colleague was trying foster an active learning environment in her class which would ultimately lead to more student engagement and increased student learning.   I also shared the research on how active learning was a little like broccoli; students know that it’s good for them but they don’t always enjoy it.  I blogged about this research a few years ago in a response to our campus newspaper’s attack on faculty who “weren’t doing their job.”  Despite our best intentions, many students want us to lecture to them so they can passively receive information.

But that’s when we need to be more stubborn than our students.  If we know that the instructional choices we’re making are in the students’ academic interests, we need to face the resistance and be resolved in our expertise and decisions.  While I doubt that many of us will face temper tantrums from our students, we may face some individuals who don’t readily see the value in the assignments we’ve developed or the instructional techniques we’re using.  In these instances, we may need to patiently explain some of our overall goals to help build buy-in from students.  In the end, however, like the parent facing the cries and screams of a difficult child, we may need to be more stubborn than our students and remember that what we’re doing is in the students’ be interests, whether they recognize it or not.

Don’t be a denier!

On Facebook and Twitter lately, my friends have been sharing their concerns about “deniers.” Deniers are people who despite overwhelming evidence opposing their opinion refuse to change their views.  Most commonly, the term is used to describe climate change deniers.  The scientific community has presented tons of evidence in support of global climate change.  Despite this evidence, there are still some people who choose to ignore or discredit the available evidence and continue believing that human beings have little impact on the environment.

While the term “climate change denier” is in our common vernacular these days, the term “denier” has been used to describe others as well.  Following World War II, some people doubted that the Holocaust happened and that Germany had interned and killed millions of Jews.  The movie Denial details a real legal battle that occurred in England between Deborah Lipstadt, a historian, and David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier.  Despite evidence that showed that mass genocide had occurred during World War II in Germany, Irving continued to hold steadfast publicly.  Examining Irving’s position, Lipstadt writes:

“(Irving) demands “absolute documentary proof” when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving’s tactics, but of those of deniers in general.”

I don’t want to go too far down the Holocaust or climate change rabbit holes here but I think the term “denier” deserves a little attention educationally.  In a discussion with a colleague last week, we lamented the resistance of some faculty to adopt active learning strategies.  The educational evidence is overwhelming (which I’ve shared that evidence on this blog over the years). Despite this evidence, some educators choose to employ lecture-based strategies.  These “active learning deniers” are also pretty willing to share their voices in opposition to student-centered strategies.  Take this Chronicle article titled “Active Learning Is Found to Foster Higher Pass Rates in STEM Courses.”  In the comments section, one instructor wrote:

For all we know the pass rates are higher but the knowledge communicated, level of intellectual effort, and retention of knowledge are lower. So-called “success” by one meta-analysis outcome alone is poor measurement of anything.”

The commenter isn’t alone in denying active learning evidence, however.  Take the following Guardian article titled In Praise of the University Lecture.  The author, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent, dismisses outright “all the buzzwords – innovative teaching, active learning, student engagement” and stands beside the practices of lecturing.  The lecture, Furedi writes, is:

the fundamental ritual of academic life. It is the one experience that has the most potential of forging a community of learners. It creates a common intellectual experience for students and allows otherwise solitary undergraduates to become part of a continuous conversation.

In another article, Furedi dismisses active learning evidence and instructors who choose to use the pedagogical approach to support student learning.

“One of the reasons why people use active learning is because they’re worried about losing students, boring students. If you’re simply interested in keeping bums in seats, it rewards people for time served. Active learning may get good results in terms of retention, but it may be an illusory outcome.”

While it’s hard to take Holocaust and climate change deniers seriously, active learning deniers may find greater support among their colleagues.  Some still see teaching and learning as an individual craft that is subject to our own experiences and beliefs.  Teaching this way, however, denies the mounting body of evidence to the contrary.