Monday, August 19, 2013

Active Learning Classrooms

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 2013 National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. It was an exciting conference, and I came away feeling very engaged and enthusiastic to support our faculty in this new mode of teaching. In a series of presentations spanning two and a half days, there was some overlap of concepts, but I learned a lot about Active Learning.

In short, Active Learning Classrooms (also Technology-Enhanced Active Learning Classrooms, or Flipped Classrooms) changes how students and faculty interact in the classroom. In an Active Learning Classroom ("ALC") work previously done in the classroom is now done outside the classroom, and activities traditionally done outside the classroom now occur in the ALC. Students learn in a more engaged model on their own, typically through recorded lecture or interactive media, then return to the ALC to interact with a cohort of other students to exercise what they have learned.

Through ALCs, student performance is often improved, students are more engaged, and students have direct access to their instructor when working through exercises (instead of having no one to ask when working alone, or when working in late-night study groups). However, ALCs are not a panacea in education. In an ALC mode, students must complete the prep work before class, faculty must restructure courses to support flipped classrooms, and institutions must provide spaces suitable for ALCs. Access to technology may also be a hindrance, both in the classroom (when faculty must work through technical glitches on their own) and in the dorm (students must have a computer to watch the recorded lectures).

a small ALC at the forum

Michelle Driessen (U of M) opened day 1 of the conference, sharing her experience in redesigning courses for active learning classrooms: the flipped classroom model. Driessen didn't record her lectures from the lecture hall. Rather, she did her lecture capture over a summer, while she was already teaching the same traditional course in Chemistry. She arranged to have a free hour after each class, where she repeated her lecture for the camera. This meant that any questions and "stumble points" students posed during the traditional lecture were fresh in her mind, so she was well prepared when recording her lecture to point out "This is where the 2 came from," or other clarification.

Most presenters advised to break up students in the ALC randomly, rather than letting them pick their own groups (where they tend to sit with friends and get off-topic). Similarly, most presenters prefer to intersperse "mini lectures" with group work; for example, you might present a topic from the reading, introducing concrete problems as group assignments to help students think analytically and scientifically. Each group might have one "leader" who guides the table discussion, one "recorder" who captures the key points on a nearby whiteboard, and one "monitor" who ensures that the group of four to five students is staying on task and that everyone participates.

Christina Petersen and David Langley (U of M) advised using the "SUCCESS" model in a flipped classroom experience. Leverage Simple messages, Unexpected ways to grab attention, Concrete examples, Credible evidence, Emotional motivation and rhetoric, and Stories that help solidify topics discussed in class to make them "Sticky."

One question tended to recur throughout the conference: What classes work best for ALCs? The answer (such as from Adam Finkelstein, McGill) is It depends. While most presenters represented STEM fields, some discussed using ALCs successfully in the traditional humanities, such as using the ALC model to teach history. Sehoya Cotner (U of M) argues It's not you, it's the room. And the "technology" required in a Technology-Enhanced Active Learning Classroom can vary; Marilyn Lockhart and Lindsey Jackson (Montana State University) discussed a typically high-tech classroom with displays and projection capability, while others defined their "TEAL" Classroom as using only "whiteboard" technology. Some fall somewhere in between, such as mixing "clickers" with whiteboards and a single projection.

But most emphasize the space is not what makes ALCs meaningful, but the instructor and the instruction method. For example, students focus on only a few features of an ALC: movable chairs, room layout, and technology available to students and faculty. Generally, students need access to wireless networking, and faculty need the ability to annotate slides "on the go." That said, matching the right space to the type of lecture can affect an instructor's success; active learning works best in an ALC, and traditional lecture works best in standard classrooms.

Gary Smith (New Mexico) shared a great experience in helping overcome student resistance to team work in ALCs. Focus on investment rather than buy-in, by connecting active learning methods with what students value. For example, students value life-long learning skills and learning how to use information. Those are two key skills that students exercise in an ALC. Through a series of in-class questions (with "clicker" responses), Smith effectively helps students to see that how students want to learn (acquire information outside of class, work with peers and instructors in class) is exactly how the ALC is designed. Throughout the course, Smith also takes advantage of opportune moments (such as when a class runs short of the hour) to have student groups discuss among themselves what is working and what they can do to improve things.

Everyone reported numbers differently, but generally the benefits of ALCs are increased student engagement, reduced D-F-W rates, and higher retention.

There were 171 registered participants (up 40% from 2011) representing 63 colleges and universities (6 international), K-12 schools, state government, a furniture manufacturer, and architectural and property management firms.  36 informational presentations associated with keynote and featured speaking, paper presentations, posters, demonstrations, roundtables, and panel presentations; 18 of these presentations were conducted by University of Minnesota faculty, staff, or students.

I'm excited to see our experiment with ALCs at Morris. Nancy Carpenter (Chemistry) took a year sabbatical to restructure her lectures to use an ALC. Plant Services, Computing Services, and Instructional & Media Technology worked in partnership with the Division of Science & Math to rebuild one of our Science classrooms as a flexible Active Learning Classroom. The new space uses whiteboards throughout the room, two projectors, tablets, and flexible-use tables to create a flipped classroom - which can also be used as a traditional lecture room by other faculty who are not ready to adopt the ALC mode. We'll use this ALC for the first time this Fall.

Working independently, the Instructional & Media Technology group also has re-imagined one of the studios in the Humanities & Fine Arts building as a Technology-Enhanced Active Learning Classroom. IMT hopes to see this new space used by faculty this year.

Notes and references:

2013 National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms (PowerPoints, handouts, materials, etc)

- Doceri as a whiteboard app on the iPad. Effectively a "super remote" for an Apple laptop. Doesn't require AppleTV, but some ALCs do use AppleTV.

- Be intentional (shifting pedagogy). Plan, plan, plan. Assess during the class, reflect and revise after the class.

- Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

- "It's not you, it's the room - Are the high-tech Active Learning Classrooms worth it?" by Sehoya Cotner, Jessica Loper, J. D. Walker, and D. Christopher Brooks.

- PollEverywhere, live audience participation.

- Active Learning Classrooms (website) at Seattle Pacific University.

- "Smart tables: Active Learning Classrooms put learning at the center" by Hope McPherson.

- Learning Spaces Research (website) at the University of Minnesota.

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