In a previous post about Active Learning (which was a follow-up to The Sage on the Stage), I said that active learning requires adopting certain attitudes. In discussing those attitudes, I mentioned a few in-class activities, such as small group work on case studies, team debates, role playing, and peer review, which can be used to turn a classroom into a place where students are active rather than passive. In this post, I will elaborate on these activities.
Before I do so, however, I will say a few words about the reasons for using class time to engage students in these activities, as opposed to the more traditional ways to spend class time, such as lecture, reading passages from a text, class discussion, etc. The reasons are as follows:
- Concentration. It is difficult to pay close attention for one hour and fifteen minutes. In-class activities are good ways to keep students focused.
- Responsibility. I think that, if I cover the readings in their entirety in class, I give students the impression that they don’t need to bother with the texts outside of class. So I make sure that students read the assigned texts outside of class, and then engage them in activities in class that expand on the readings.
- Convenience. By making course material available to students outside of class (e.g., via a course management system, such as Blackboard or Angel), I allow students to go through the material on their own time and at their own pace.
Since I hold students responsible for reading and discussing the assigned texts outside of class, I don’t have to go over the readings in their entirety in class, and thus I have free time for doing exciting and engaging activities in class. To make sure that students read and discuss the assigned texts, I ask them to post summaries of the main arguments on the discussion board in Blackboard or Angel and comment on a classmate’s post. To help students with the readings, I post PowerPoint slides, notes, and links to online sources about the readings on Blackboard or Angel. I also participate in the discussion on the discussion board.
Let me give an example of what I do in class. After they had read Nagel’s “What It Is Like To Be a Bat,” posted their summaries on the discussion board, and commented on a classmate’s post before class, I show in class a video clip about a blind person who can echo-locate.
Then I put up a PowerPoint slide with the following questions:
- Does the case of Ben Underwood show that human beings can experience what it is like to be a bat? If so, why? If not, why not?
- What would Nagel say about this case?
Through this case, students grasp the distinction between what it is like for one to behave like a bat does and what it is like for a bat to be a bat.
Instead of addressing these questions to the entire class, however, I do what is called a Think-Pair-Share activity. I put up a PowerPoint slide with the following instructions:
- Think. Think about your answer and write it down.
- Pair. Pair up with a classmate and compare your answers.
- Share. Share your answers with the rest of the class when called upon.
I think that this exercise is better than class discussion for the following reasons: (a) it gives students time to think about their answers (time that can now be spent on thinking, since the reading was done outside of class), (b) it lets them know what their classmates think and engage in conversation about it, and (c) everyone gets to participate.
Again, all of the above is based on my own views and personal experience. So make of it what you will. What do you do to keep your students actively engaged?