April 1, 2014
Use elements of cognitive constructivism to design effective learning activities
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011) and others (Bransford et al., 2000) identify constructivism as a critical learning theory for the design of effective teaching methods. However, this term is often misunderstood and confused with concepts such as “social constructionism” (Hartle, Baviskar, & Smith, 2012).
Cognitive constructivism has four major characteristics. Learning activities become more effective when we include these elements in the design of the activity.
1. Activate prior knowledge. Learning activities should elicit prior knowledge and engage students cognitively and emotionally with the topic. New learning is retained better when it is connected with existing knowledge structures; both new knowledge and existing knowledge must be active in memory at the same time. Integration will not happen if the prior knowledge is not active and students experience the new knowledge in isolation. Instructors should be able to observe and interpret student’s prior knowledge, including assumptions and misconceptions they might bring to the task. Select a meaningful activity that engages and motivates student interest; activities that only check whether students read the text or did their homework are not suitably engaging.
2. Create surprise. Create learning activities that reveal disconnects between prior knowledge and the demands of the current task. Sometimes prior knowledge is incomplete and students are unable to solve a problem without additional knowledge. Sometimes prior knowledge is incorrect (misconceptions and false assumptions) and obstructs problem solving. Learning is most effective when circumstances violate our expectations and predictions (a surprising outcome, new information contradicts prior knowledge or beliefs). When we confront discrepancies created by inadequate information or misconceptions, we experience emotional discomfort (dissonance) that can motivate learning. However, instructors must handle this component with care. Too little discomfort will not motivate students to learn; too much discomfort will direct attention away from the learning activity and toward other behaviors that will reduce or eliminate the discomfort.
3. Apply and evaluate the new knowledge. Students should apply the new learning to a variety of related problems and receive detailed formative feedback. These activities create opportunities to make any corrections needed. Repetition with a variety of problems provides practice and reinforcement for the learning. When possible, construct learning and practice tasks that provide self-correcting feedback as an integral part of the task. Tasks completed as a group frequently create opportunities for students to give effective feedback to their peers while completing the task.
4. Include a closing reflective assignment. Require students to reflect on their learning experience. Students frequently complete learning activities without recognizing what they gained from these activities beyond completing a required assignment. When students can articulate what they have learned and how a learning activity contributed to their learning, they become more motivated to engage in similar learning activities. At the close of a learning activity, ask students to explain what they learned, what they are now able to do, describe how they did it, and describe why the activity was important for their learning.
Hartle, R. T., Baviskar, S., & Smith, R. (2012). A field guide to constructivism in the college science classroom: Four essential criteria and a guide to their usage. Bioscene, 38, 31-34.
January 14, 2014
Use a rubric to evaluate class participation
George Kuh (2008) and Carol Twigg (2003) note that “students don’t do optional.” If we know an activity or study strategy is effective, they propose that we should encourage students to use it by making the activity mandatory. Unfortunately for us, this usually means we must grade the activity in some way.
Students who prepare for class and actively participate in discussion are more engaged and learn more, but grading participation can be a challenge. Many instructors include class participation as a graded element but have difficulty evaluating student participation. Simply recording attendance or counting how often students contribute to discussion or ask a question during class feels superficial. Worse, this system can misfire and create unintended problems. If we reward all contributions without evaluating whether contributions advance the discussion, the quality of discussion might degrade because students attempt to earn points for “participation” by asking trivial questions or making uninformed or off-topic comments.
A rubric that describes appropriate preparation and participation behavior provides clear guidelines to students about participation expectations. Provide periodic feedback based on the rubric during the term (once every 3 or 4 weeks works well). The feedback tells students you take meaningful class participation seriously, and students can use the feedback to improve their in-class contributions. Finally, participation rubric scores serve as an unambiguous method for determining a participation grade.
An example of a rubric (PDF) that I developed and used in a small seminar is posted to the CUTLA web. The rubric includes evaluation of the quality of the student’s preparation for class discussion, the substance of contributions made to discussion, and aspects of general class citizenship (listening skills, responding to other students with respect, promoting on-topic discussion). I share this rubric with students during the first week of the class and provide feedback to them about once a month during the term, with a final evaluation at the end of the term. The rubric allows me to give students regular feedback based on a period of observation I can recall accurately. The first time I provide feedback on class discussion, the students initiate a useful discussion about my expectations for participation. I note an improvement in the quality of discussion following this initial feedback that persists through the remainder of the term. Students appreciate the opportunity to improve the quality of their participation across the term. Since using this rubric, students in my class now initiate actions to keep discussions on track and will refer to the rubric when they respond to another student whose off-topic comments threaten to send the discussion off the rails (yes, the rubric rewards students for contributions that keep the discussion focused).
Examples of rubrics, including my rubric for class participation, are posted on the CUTLA web site.
Kuh, G. (2008).What matters to student success: Lessons from high performing institutions. (PDF) Workshop on Assessing Student and Institutional Performance, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL.
Twigg, C. A. (2003, July). Build it, but will they come? Learning Market Space. Electronic newsletter published by the National Center for Academic Transformation.
April 9, 2013
Peer and self-evaluation of participation in discussion
We often focus on presentation skills as oral communication skills, but students more frequently need to either lead or contribute to productive group discussions. Small group discussions can easily go off the rails when students indulge in off-topic talking, inadequate listening, and disrespectful behavior. The dynamic quality of class discussion presents challenges to faculty who would like to hold students accountable for the quality of their participation in these discussions.
Multhaup (2008) describes how to prepare students for substantive class discussions and suggests two strategies for evaluating student contributions to class discussion. Many of these strategies can be adapted for the online environment.
Establish ground rules for effective class discussion(first week of class)
Establish expectations for class discussions by facilitating a think-pair-share activity during the first week of the term.
Use the comments from the group discussion to identify some ground rules and expectations for individual participation in class discussion during the remainder of the term.
Adaptation for eLearning: Create a threaded discussion based on questions such as
Peer evaluation of the quality of participation in discussion
Require students to complete a Participation Survey 3 or 4 times during the term. Each student must complete the following three evaluation elements for every student in the class, including themselves:
Compile the collective (anonymous) feedback for individual students and distribute this feedback to each student. If necessary, edit comments or add your own comments.
Adaptation for eLearning: Create a drop box assignment or survey in eLearning in which students answer these questions. You can make completion of the feedback a graded assignment (completed/not completed), compile the feedback information for individual students, and distribute this feedback through the course email function or provide it as feedback in the dropbox.
If you ask students to facilitate discussion, gather peer feedback about this skill
After each facilitated discussion, members of a discussion group complete a peer feedback survey for the discussion leader. The peer feedback answers the following questions:
Provide feedback several times during the term to enable students to improve their participation and discussion skills over time.
Multhaup, K. S. (2008, Spring). Using class discussions to improve oral communication skills. Teaching Tips (APA Division 20 – Adult Development and Aging).
March 5, 2013
Use clicker questions as prompts for peer instruction
Instructors can use clicker questions to initiate a pair-share activity or peer instruction. When using peer instruction, faculty pose a question about a concept that many students have difficulty understanding. When presented as a ConcepTest clicker question, the answer options include statements of erroneous beliefs and misconceptions many students have about this topic. Before displaying the correct answer to the question, instructors ask students to discuss their answer with another student and try to persuade one another of the correct answer. When the question is posed a second time, more students will answer correctly, based on information they learn through discussion with peers. Instructors should follow a peer instruction activity with a discussion of why alternatives that represent misconceptions are wrong. They can elicit these comments from students. This activity creates unambiguous feedback about the correct response and reinforces the value of the peer learning activity.
Faculty in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) have developed extensive collections of questions designed to probe student understanding of difficult concepts. Conduct a Google search on the terms ConcepTest and the name of your discipline to locate resources and examples of ConcepTest questions. Research on the impact of peer instruction activities supported by discussions of these questions indicates that peer instruction promotes deep and enduring learning.
Constructing questions that probe difficult concepts and identify common student misconceptions can be a daunting task. Fortunately, many faculty who use clicker questions for peer instruction collect their best questions and share these with other instructors. An excellent collection of clicker question collections is posted on the Concordia University Centre for Teaching and Learning Services website.
The site provides links to databases of clicker and ConcepTest questions for the following disciplines:
Chemistry (4 databases)
Mathematics (2 databases)
Many of these clicker questions use the ConcepTest format pioneered by Eric Mazur for implementing peer instruction in physics classes at Harvard. The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (University of British Columbia) has an excellent set of resources for the use of clickers to promote student learning. This site also provides links to collections of ConcepTest and clicker questions for STEM disciplines.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science hosts a collection of questions that assess conceptual understanding of concepts in the sciences and identify common misconceptions held by students (with data on the percentage of students in grades 6-8 and 9-12 who endorse these misconceptions). The site also includes an archive of scholarly publications that document the existence of these misconceptions.
A related initiative associated with Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) examines how POGIL methods can be implemented through clicker questions. A discussion of this work in college courses in STEM can be found on the POGIL site.
February 14, 2012
Use response cards to facilitate class discussion of sensitive topics
Students may be reluctant to raise questions or express opinions during class discussion, especially if the discussion involves a sensitive topic and the student’s participation might entail stating a controversial or unpopular opinion, or revealing unflattering personal information, or asking a question the student fears others might think is overly simplistic. Students can be engaged more fully in discussion if they can make contributions in a less public way.
First, ask students to write a brief response to a prompt for the discussion on an index card or sheet of paper. Students should not write their name on the index card. Remind students to write legibly because they will pass their card to other students.
Next, ask students to exchange cards with at least three different people. Multiple exchanges ensure that no student will know the author of the comment written on the index card they hold at the end of this activity. Most students will finish this activity with an index card written by another student.
Begin the discussion by asking several students to read the response to the prompt written on their current index card.
This strategy enables students to participate without raising concerns about appearing naïve or uninformed or feeling threatened by responses that reveal unflattering information about themselves. Initial contributions to the discussion that are based on the anonymous responses written on the index cards will open the discussion and encourage additional contributions. If discussion falters, ask students to review their index card and contribute responses related to any additional issues the class has not yet discussed.
Bergey, B. (n.d.) Making it stick: How to design engaging and effective learning activities. Workshop handout, Teaching & Learning Center, Temple University.
Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
September 6, 2011
Use PowerPoint to prompt engaging learning activities during class
Dilbert depicts PowerPoint presentations as a direct route to slumber and employee revolt. PowerPoint presentations need not be deadly. Instructors can create slides that prompt class activities that engage students, motivate meaningful class discussion, and promote deep learning (Berk, 2011).
Instructors commonly organize and plan the presentation of content while they create a set of PowerPoint slides. Consider creating slides to plan and prompt engaging learning activities at key points during a class presentation.
Instructors who use personal response systems (clickers) can add a slide that poses a question to evaluate student understanding of a critical concept or to ask students to apply a model or principle to a specific application. Allow students a moment to think individually or discuss the question in small groups before they record their response to the question with their clickers.
An instructor who does not use clickers can present a slide that poses a question as a prompt for small group discussion (e.g., as a pair-share activity) or a brief in-class written response to the question (e.g., a minute paper).
Share responses to the prompt with the entire class. If using clicker questions, display a chart summarizing the pattern of responses from the group. Otherwise, ask for a show of hands for typical responses or initiate a class discussion in which several groups report the consensus response from their discussion.
Wrap up the discussion and refocus attention on the content that triggered the activity.
Include no more than one or two of these engagement slides during a class session to engage student interest and focus attention on critical points for the day’s lesson.
Berk, R. A. (2011). “Powerpoint® engagement” techniques to foster deep learning.Journal of Faculty Development, 25, 45-48.
Bruff, D. (2009).Teaching with classroom response systems: Creating active learning environments.San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
January 19, 2010
Evaluating students on class participation
Want to include class participation in your grading but find it difficult to grade participation fairly?
Develop a rubric to evaluate student participation. Suggested criteria for a rubric include:
Share your participation rubric with students in the first week of the class. Invite student comments and suggestions for revisions (within acceptable boundaries). This strategy will clearly communicate your expectations for effective participation and promote student acceptance of these criteria.
Evaluating participation in every class session can become burdensome and encourage student participation merely for the sake of earning points that day. Instead, use the rubric to grade student participation once a month. This strategy will allow you to base your evaluation of participation for intervals of time that will be manageable for your ability to recall student behavior. It will also provide students with feedback about their early participation and allow them to make corrections and improve participation across the term.
This tip is based in part on a contribution by JoAnne Majors of Immaculata University to the web site of the Teaching and Learning Center, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
February 3, 2009
Use online technology to engage students with assigned readings and improve class discussion
The ELearning system can be used to encourage students to read assigned material before class. Instructors can create a “quiz game” in which students take a short quiz to accumulate a “high score” for the assignment. Each quiz might contain only 4 or 5 multiple choice questions on the assigned reading from a larger set of 12-15 questions. The questions should be selected to help students focus on target issues that will be discussed during class. Quizzes can be structured (using D2L or Respondus) so that students answer different questions each time they take the quiz. This can be a low-stakes assignment, but some credit should be assigned so that students complete the activity. Advance completion of the quiz will improve the quality of discussion during the face-to-face class.
Thanks to Xuan V. Tran, MBA, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor in HLES for this teaching tip.
November 4, 2008
Structuring small class discussions
Leading a small class discussion can be a challenge. If students are not prepared, discussions can be derailed when students attempt to participate by introducing off-topic questions and comments. How can we motivate students to prepare in advance for class and participate actively and constructively in discussions? Leupen and Burtt (2008) describe a strategy for structuring student preparation and class discussion that requires students to prepare for class and participate in a way that keeps the discussion on track.
Assign the following three assignments to different students as preparation for at least one class meeting each week:
Strictly enforce presentation times (use a timekeeper and a bell if needed) to ensure that all presentations occur. Using this strategy, a “critical mass” of students is present at each class to sustain a lively discussion. The nature of the assignments and related presentations also ensures that relevant themes and topics related to course content are addressed in the discussion.
Leupen, S. M., & Burtt, Jr., E. H. (2008, October). The truly participatory seminar. The Teaching Professor, 22, 5-6.
September 9, 2008
Using technology to create community and engage students with course content
Lang (2008) argues that building community can be difficult if the only opportunity for interaction occurs during regularly-scheduled class time. In contrast, the online environment provides access to asynchronous discussion 24/7. Threaded discussions can play an important role for building community in both online and face-to-face courses. These discussions can also encourage students to read course materials before coming to class.
Make sure that threaded discussions are relevant and “matter” for class performance
Using technology for threaded discussions will be effective for community building only if students are actively engaged in the discussions. If participation is optional, students won’t participate. If the discussions and student postings are not used during regular class meetings and discussions, students will perceive threaded discussions as “make work.”
One way to create an engaging and relevant threaded discussion is to require that students post a 2-paragraph response to the reading for a given week. Skim the postings before class to identify specific topics or questions posed by students. At the beginning of class, briefly discuss high-frequency comments and address important misconceptions or questions included in the posts. When you connect the content of classroom discussion to the content of the threaded discussion, students will know their posts have an impact on the class.
Grading the posts will also motivate students to participate in this activity. But grading should not be onerous. D2L will automatically track the number of posts by each student. One simple grading strategy would be to base a student’s participation grade on the number of posts to the threaded discussion.
Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.
September 2, 2008
Engaging students through discussion
Students bring preconceived notions about how the world works to their classes. Sometimes these common-sense mental models are inconsistent with contemporary thinking in the discipline. However, students will frequently maintain these beliefs independently and in parallel with the models discussed in class. An example of this phenomenon is the persistence of student belief in intuitive theories of motion that are inconsistent with the laws of physics (Kaiser, McCloskey, & Proffitt, 1986). Although students might perform well on exams, they might not really change the way they think about the discipline. Instructors can encourage students to integrate their knowledge and replace faulty common-sense models and beliefs by creating class discussions that require students to confront the contradiction between their common-sense beliefs and accepted models in the discipline.
Prior to lecturing on a new concept, pose a question to the class that will require using the new concept to arrive at an answer. In class, ask students to work in small groups to discuss and answer the question. (This can also be done outside of class as a threaded discussion in D2L.) Emphasize that the point is to debug understanding, not to be "right." The most important aspect of this activity is that the students must commit to an answer in writing. This public investment in an answer engages students in the discussion about the posted answers that follows (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). When erroneous responses are questioned by the instructor or other students, the students will have to acknowledge the contradictions between their responses and solutions offered by the new model. This will be a small revelation for them and for a large fraction of the class.
This activity could be implemented either through class discussion or a threaded discussion in D2L. In either case, it is important to ensure that students are held accountable for participation in this activity. Many instructors use a check/check-plus/check-minus system for grading this activity, which contributes to an overall participation grade (for about 10% of the final grade). Most students earn a check (pass); a small number of students earn a check-plus (exceptionally good contribution) or check-minus (minimal contribution).
Thanks to Dr. Brandon Murakami, Department of Physics, for sharing this tip.
Information about intuitive models and how mental models undergo change can be found in:
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded Edition). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Kaiser, M. K., McCloskey, M., & Proffitt, D. R. (1986). Development of intuitive theories of motion: Curvilinear motion in the absence of external forces. Developmental Psychology, 22, 67-71.
Nelson, C. (1994). Cultural thinking and collaborative learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 59 (Fall), 45-58.
June 24, 2008
Participation in class discussion is a valuable tool for increasing student engagement. Achieving consistent and constructive participation in class discussion can be a challenge. Students may be reluctant to participate in discussion if they are uncertain about faculty expectations for meaningful contributions or unclear about the ground rules for appropriate behavior. Students can be assigned specific conversational roles such as facilitator (in charge of presenting the basic information to be discussed and posing relevant questions for discussion), summarizer (keeps notes of the discussion and provides a brief summary at the close of the discussion), process observer (monitors group dynamics and ensures that others participate in the discussion), evidence assessor (asks individuals who make a contribution to describe the evidence that supports the assertion). Before class presentations in which discussion is expected, individual students can be assigned each of these roles for different presentations. Alternatively, students can rotate through each role during different class meetings. Assigned roles with clear descriptions of the expectations associated with each role will increase student participation, limit the tendency for a few students to dominate discussions, and improve the overall quality of class discussions. A more complete description of conversational roles can be found in Brookfield and Preskill (2005).
Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
June 10, 2008
Encouraging discussions in class not only improves student comprehension of material, it creates practice for public speaking. To offer an opinion and have a classmate agree is an overwhelming confidence booster. Instructors can include group discussions as part of the class, so that speaking out becomes a normal occurrence. Raise the stakes when possible by having presentations in class, and don’t be afraid to comment on presentation and delivery as well as substance of the contribution. If you demand volume and projection, you’ll get it. If not, you reinforce the small, weak voice that will not serve students as they move out of University and into the working world.
May 27, 2008
Use student questions to encourage the participation of additional students in class discussion. In larger classes, students might have difficulty hearing a student’s question. Repeat the student’s question so that everyone can hear and then ask if any other member of the class can suggest an answer. Again, repeat or paraphrase the student’s responses so that all students can hear the response. Connect the question and responses to the ongoing discussion of material so that students clearly understand that student contributions and responses to questions are considered part of the class content (anticipating the “will this be included on the test?” question).
Twenty Ways to Make Lecture More Participatory (Online Document). Retrieved October 16, 2007, from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.
February 19, 2008
Student engagement in large lectures can be improved by using a pair-share discussion strategy. Ask students to turn to a neighbor to complete a task (develop an example of a concept, answer a question, or solve a problem from the lecture material). Provide a few minutes for discussion among the paired students, then select students at random from the class roster to share their responses with the class as a whole.
Ebert-May, D., Brewer, C., & Allred, S. (1997). Innovation in large lectures – teaching for active learning. Bioscience, 47, 601-607.
January 15, 2008
Ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion of this topic. You need not grade this writing, although you might consider collecting the writing as an easy way to monitor attendance. Will students benefit from writing that does not directly contribute to their grade? Research findings suggest that they do.
Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10 minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on both factual and conceptual questions than did merely thinking about the topic, with a larger benefit for conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.
Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping is short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.
November 6, 2007
Can a student be too engaged?
Have a student who talks too much and monopolizes class time? Talk to this student after class. Praise the student for his or her confidence and command of the material. Then ask the student to help you engage other students in the class.
October 23, 2007
Ask, don’t tell. Make students responsible for generating some of the content of a lecture. If the reading for a class session clearly describes content, ask students to generate this content in response to a probe question rather than simply reviewing this material in lecture. Research in cognitive psychology on the “generation effect” demonstrates that people retain information longer when they generate the material as a response to a probe than when they simply read this material (Slamecka & Graf, 1978).
Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 592-604.
Updated 04/22/13 lrg
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