Tag Archives: active learning

Developing engaged citizens through critical thinking

Terry HebertWhat happens when students are asked to write for an audience who knows little about the discipline?” Guest speaker Professor Terry Hébert addressed this question at a November 20, 2015 session entitled Developing Engaged Citizens through Critical Thinking, the most recent event organized by the Assessment in Large Classes Advisory Group.

Continue reading Developing engaged citizens through critical thinking

Teaching What’s Important: Symposium Highlights

On December 11th, 2015, McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) held a symposium for faculty with a focus on translating aspirations for student learning into pedagogical strategies. The event, Teaching What’s Important: Educating Students for Today and Tomorrow, called upon a range of university professors to showcase their strategies and experiences, and join the discussion about the possibilities for undergraduate education at McGill. With a turnout of 135 (a mostly faculty members, but also staff and a few students), the discussion was certainly though-provoking. For some highlights, please see below: Continue reading Teaching What’s Important: Symposium Highlights

The Eight-Minute Lecture Keeps Students Engaged

Faculty Focus has an interesting article on reframing lectures into eight minute sections. Many studies have demonstrated that students retain very little from lectures. However, lectures in small segments (interspersed with active learning strategies) can be a helpful strategy to help frame concepts and facilitate student focus.

The article provides some guidelines on how to implement an “eight-minute lecture” and gives some concrete examples of their use. Continue reading The Eight-Minute Lecture Keeps Students Engaged

What’s the prof gonna ask?

Every August, I teach a 3-credit course at McGill called Academic English Seminar, which is an academic skills course for incoming undergraduate students who speak English as a second or other language. The course runs 39 hours over 13 days. It’s intended to support students’ transition from high school or CEGEP learning to university learning. Every time I teach the course, I introduce at least one new topic or one new learning strategy. Last year, the new topic was the learning merits of taking handwritten notes versus laptop notes. This year, I introduced students to a study strategy to help them address a question students frequently pose when they’re studying together for a test: What’s the prof gonna ask? The strategy was the application of Bloom’s Taxonomy of levels of learning to the creation of questions as a means for anticipating what information professors might deem important in the readings they assign. I encouraged students to think: Why would the professor have assigned this reading? What are the salient points the professor wants me to draw from this reading? Continue reading What’s the prof gonna ask?

Take the active learning challenge

A great article by Chris Buddle on his efforts to include active learning in every class. Congratulations to Chris on his success! We look forward to hearing more as the term progresses.

Arthropod Ecology

Dear Instructors,

Here’s your challenge: Include active learning activities in every lecture.

Just do it.

Active learning is a philosophy and approach in which teaching moves beyond the ‘podium-style’ lecture and directly includes students in the learning process. There is certainly a big movement out there to include active learning in the classroom, there is evidence that it works, and active learning strategies have been around for a long time. Active learning can make learning experience more interactive, inclusive, and help embrace different learning styles. Active learning places the student in a more central role in a classroom, and allows students to engage with the course and course content in a different way.

So, why doesn’t everyone embrace active learning?

Without a doubt, it can take a bit of extra work. This post by Meghan Duffy provides an excellent case study, and illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of…

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Two great science communication tools for conferences and teaching: smart screens and cell phones

Earlier in the summer at the European Geosciences Union in Vienna I learned about two dead-easy and great science communication tools for conferences.  These are great for any conference hall or meeting, but could be just as easily be used in the classroom to make a more exciting in class research presentations. For better or worse, most of us are carrying them (or looking at them!) right now: a smart screen or cell phone. Continue reading Two great science communication tools for conferences and teaching: smart screens and cell phones

Instructors: stop putting your Powerpoint slides on-line

I tire of the belly-aching about how students don’t show up to lectures anymore (the latest example of this is mentioned here). In my opinion, this is a signal that something is wrong with how the material is delivered rather than being indicative of some deeper issue. It means the traditional lecture format needs a serious overhaul. In other words, perhaps this is the fault of the instructor rather than the student.

One of the key issues is that instructors are getting into the habit of spoon-feeding students by placing lectures on-line. I was a 20 year-old undergraduate once, and if I was able to get all the lecture material by logging on and clicking ‘download’, it would certainly make it easy to skip class! If lectures are posted on-line, I’m not surprised that students aren’t going to lecture.

The solution is simple: STOP posting Powerpoint slides on-line!

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OK, I admit I’ll get some flak from that statement. Here are some of the arguments for posting Powerpoint slides on-line, and my rebuttals:

Students argue that having lectures on-line facilitates their learning: instead of concentrating on the lectures and the content, students have to scramble to write things done.

This merely indicates that the instructor is going too quickly over the material, or that too much material is being covered. Less is often more. If students are scrambling to write stuff down, this means “slow down”, it doesn’t mean “post your lectures on-line”. There’s a serious disease in higher education and it’s called “Information Overload Disorder”. For some reason, instructors have in their mind that covering loads of material is a requirement for a University course. No: covering important information in an active and integrative manner is a requirement for a University course.

Students are SO used to having the notes, and I’m afraid my teaching evaluations will suffer if I don’t put the notes on-line.

Sorry, this doesn’t fly either: my teaching scores have actually increased once I stopped putting notes on-line, and I’ve received countless positive comments from students about not posting slides on-line. This is because the class was always full, and it forced me to change the manner in which lectures are delivered (see above: I had to cover less material!). Having students in the classroom instead of their dorm rooms produced a positive feedback loop: it created a full classroom, and an active classroom. Since there were more students in class, there were more questions and since there were more questions, the classroom became more interactive and as the classroom become more interactive, student engagement increased.

Powerpoint is so awesome! Textbook companies provide the slides and all the material is ready to go! Clickity-click-click let’s LECTURE!

Powerpoint is not awesome. Powerpoint slides are an ineffective and rather annoying tool for the University classroom. Text-heavy Powerpoint slides do not promote an active learning environment. Active learning is an important and valuable concept in higher education. Active learning means the classroom becomes a space for debate, discussion, interaction, and the instructor is the facilitator of all of this rather than a ‘voice from a podium’. Powerpoint slides can be used to illustrate concepts, for showing relevant graphs or images, but they should not be used for a long list of bulleted points. Frankly, Powerpoint often becomes a memory tool for the instructor rather than a tool for effective instruction. Try a chalkboard instead…

Students shouldn’t be forced to come to lecture – heck, they are paying for University and we are at their service. It’s their right to have access to course notes on-line.

Yes, students are paying to come to University, and instructors are paid to teach. In most cases, this means teaching in a seminar room or lecture hall. In most cases, this means teaching in a context where direct interaction with students is possible, important and a key part of the University experience! To me, it’s the student’s right to be able to go to lecture and experience an active and engaging environment: an environment that creates opportunity for learning from an expert on a topic, but also learning from peers. These are difficult things to replicate outside of a classroom. So, instead of thinking of it as forcing students to come to lecture, it’s time to create a lecture environment that is welcoming, exciting and engaging. Let’s create environments which make it so students want to come to lecture.

The University Classroom: let's make it a place where students WANT to be! (photo by M. Pourde)
The University Classroom: let’s make it a place where students WANT to be! (photo by M. Pourde)

Not all students can come to lecture!

Correct: and it’s certainly convenient to be able to have access to Powerpoint slides especially if a student is sick or has a family emergency. However, this is based on an assumption that someone will be able to actually understand a lecture based on a series of Powerpoint slides. Hopefully this isn’t the case! Instead, a Powerpoint presentation should facilitate and guide rather than be a definitive record of a lecture. A good lecture should never depend on Powerpoint: a good lecture should change direction depending on a question from a student, or a current event that occurs on the morning of the lecture. It should be dynamic, and never ‘locked-in’ to a series of slides. If students miss lectures, there are alternatives: Many students record lectures, students often have friends in a class, and there are office hours available for students. I often find office hours to be rather quiet times, yet this is the perfect opportunity for a student to approach an instructor if they miss a lecture.

What are the alternatives?

I’m not saying don’t put anything on-line, rather I’m arguing against dumping an entire Powerpoint presentation on-line. There are many alternatives… but you’ll have wait for a future post that will discuss some ideas – so stay tuned! (or you are welcome to comment, below).

In sum, I hope this post can cause a stir, and cause instructors to question the value of posting lectures on-line. As in all things, there is no silver bullet solution to low student attendance in a lecture hall, but I firmly believe we are doing a serious disservice to students by posting material on-line. Let’s instead work on innovative approaches to teaching that will make the lecture hall an inviting and exciting space for teaching and learning.

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