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.
August 27, 2013
Use a student reflection activity as an ice-breaker at the beginning of class and an assessment at the end of the term
Although we articulate student learning outcomes for course syllabi that describe what our students should be able to know and do by the end of the term, we often focus on disciplinary content and overlook learning outcomes related to the intellectual development of our students. Many courses include explicit learning outcomes related to personal growth, intercultural competence, or diversity skills. These learning outcomes can be made more explicit (and assessed) by including reflective assignments at the beginning and end of the term.Standpoint Statement ice-breaker activity
The Standpoint Statement (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005, p. 158-159) activity is a short, in-class written reflection. Give students a few minutes at the beginning of class to reflect on and describe how their personal and social identities might influence their perspectives on course topics. The written reflections should include the following elements
Follow-up small group discussion
Ask students to gather in small groups to discuss their reflective essays. The discussion serves as an ice-breaker and helps students get to know one another. The group discussion helps establish a classroom climate in which students can share personal perspectives in a safe, respectful, and civil environment. When faculty permit and encourage student to discuss personal experience in combination with more theoretical disciplinary perspectives, they enable students “to claim a knowledge base from which they can speak” (hooks, 1994, p. 148). This experience can be particularly important for creating an inclusive community in the classroom for students who may otherwise feel alienated from the norms of traditional academic culture (such as first generation students, students of color, etc.).
Final reflective paper (close-of-term assessment)
Consider using a closing assignment that encourages students to articulate how they have changed and grown as a result of their experiences in your course. Ask students to reflect on their experiences and self-assess their personal development in the course. Assign a Minute Paper (Angelo & Cross, 1993) or ask students to write a letter to themselves that you will collect and mail to them in a specified number of weeks or months after the term ends.
If you used the Standpoint Statement activity at the beginning of the semester, you can encourage students to think specifically about how their identities influenced their reception of course material. You might also ask students to describe any changes in their perspectives that were connected to their learning and experiences in the course (see Mezirow (1981) for more commentary on perspective transformation).
Bookending your course with reflective activities that prompt students to think about who they are and how their personal characteristics are related to your course can transform a mere content-laden class into a personal growth experience. These tasks can help students articulate how their identities and personal histories shaped their perception of course content at the beginning of the semester and, in turn, how their perceptions may have become more refined, deepened, or broadened through their learning experiences in the course.
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd Edition ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Duffy, D. K., & Jones, J. W. (1995). Teaching Within the Rhythms of hte Semester. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
hooks, b. (1994 ). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Mezirow, J. (1981). A Critical Theory of Adult Learning and Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 32, 3-24.
January 29, 2013
Strategies for learning student name
UWF promotes itself as student-centered institution “where the buildings have numbers and the students have names.” Continued growth and larger class sizes create challenges to faculty who want to maintain this commitment to student engagement. Learning a student’s name makes that student feel valued. Small changes that improve the sense of community in a class can make a big difference for student engagement and learning
Barbara Millis collected strategies used by several colleagues to help them learn the names of their students and build a sense of rapport and community in their classes.
Seating charts: Divide and conquer
If your class is small enough, you can use a seating chart to help learn student names. Instructors can assign seats or make a chart based on seats that students select during the first week of class. Students are fairly territorial about their seats and sit in the same location all term when seats are not assigned. Divide your seating charts into blocks with no more than 6 students per block. Work on learning the names of the 6 students in one block during each class session. Make a point of visiting with the students in a new block during class. Once you learn the names of students in one block, include them in your visits with student in the next block to keep names you’ve learned fresh in memory. (Dee Fink)
Create an office hours visit assignment for your course
Require students to visit you during office hours during the first two or three weeks of the term, even if the visit is limited to only a few minutes. You might not learn all student names during these one-on-one visits, but an early break-the-ice visit ensures that students can locate your office and encourages them to arrange content-focused visits later in the term. This strategy is especially useful in classes with large first-year enrollments. Many first-year students are naïve about the expectations of academic life and are reluctant to intrude on faculty during their office hours. They may benefit from an extra push to engage in a one-on-one conversation with an instructor. (Gerry Wojnar)
Use student’s names when you talk to them, even if you have to ask their name first
We frequently recognize the names of our students when we see or hear their names. We might recognize many of our students’ faces, but have difficulty connecting names to faces. When a student visits your office or you see one of your students outside class, greet the student by name (if you know it), or ask “please remind me of your name” (if you don’t know it). When you use the student’s name, students love this confirmation that you know them. If you don’t know the student’s name, request it and use it during your conversation. You will show the student that you care enough to try to learn and use students’ names. Students appreciate your effort. Both strategies build rapport with students. (Susan Robison)
Ask students to make and use name tents during class
In smaller classes, you can ask students to print their name in large letters on name tents and place the name tents on their desk. You and other students can then read their names and associate names with faces. Make a point of using names when you call on students during class. Gradually, you will learn names and rely less on reading the names from the tents. (Kejing Liu & Susan Robison).
Use student photos in the ClassMate roster to associate names with faces
Print a copy of the roster with student photos and bring this to class during the first week and during exams. In the early weeks, you might use the roster to call on students and compare their appearance in class with the roster photo. Bring the roster to an early exam and see if you can match students in the class with their names by comparing their photo to their appearance that day. This also deters wandering eyes during the exam. (Susan Robison)
This tip is based on a teaching strategy submitted to the Teaching Issues Writing Consortium by Barbara Millis, Teaching and Learning Center, University of Texas at San Antonio (http://www.utsa.edu/tlc/).
WKU Writer’s Consortium
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.
August 16, 2011
Getting to know your students
Use part of the first day of class to gather some information about the students in your class, how they perceived their roles as students, and their expectations about the class by asking them to respond to two questions:
Before class, write your own answers to these questions so that you can identify matches and mismatches in your assumptions about teaching and learning and those of your students. Students from varying cultural backgrounds may respond to these questions in unexpected ways.
This activity is also a great self-reflection exercise to articulate your thoughts about teaching and learning that will help you develop a statement of your philosophy of teaching.
Based in part on a tip submitted by Emma Bourassa, Instructor, ESL Department, Thompson Rivers University (http://www.tru.ca/).
May 13, 2008
Use the first day of class to set the tone for the remainder of the term. Engaged students are expected to ask questions and participate in class. Create an activity on the first day that will engage students and force them to speak. An easy way to do this is to use an icebreaker activity that will enable students to meet one another. This has the added benefit that comes when students develop a personal connection with classmates and potential study partners.
A simple icebreaker activity is to arrange students in groups of 3-5. Give the students 5 minutes to introduce themselves to each other and identify three non-obvious things they have in common (hobbies, city where they grew up, travel to another country, musical interests, etc.). Each group should report back to the entire class, introducing the members of the group and noting their common characteristics. Students might misinterpret this activity as pure fun-and-games, so take some time to explain your goals to learn student names, introduce students to potential study-buddies, and create a class expectation that everyone can (and will) participate.
Source: Not Quite 101 Ways to Learning Students’ Names, Michael Palmer (Spring, 2004). University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center. Web site: http://trc.virginia.edu/Publications/Teaching_Concerns/Misc_Tips/Learn_Names.htm
Updated 02/14/12 cdw
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