Active learning is amazing in many ways. One of the ways that it is amazing is that it allows the professor to fine tune the brick-and-mortar classroom experiences to really focus on the muddiest, trickiest part of the learning process in a way that you could not before. Student centered teaching shifts the focus of the classroom from the instructor. Students can grapple with the most challenging part of the assignment together, with your help, so that you can really find that spot where student keep getting tripped up and adjust their conceptions, which leads to better outcomes on course deliverables.
The reason it’s so tricky is because sometimes that also means you spend less time lecturing, which being a university instructor, is probably something you are pretty good at. When I stopped lecturing as much in classes, I had even more time to engage with students and make those direct contacts that are so satisfying to you as a teacher. But I also noticed you need to be careful to make sure to design activities for yourself.
I get very bored easily. When your teaching is reactive to learning, sometimes there’s a period where one is pedagogically “waiting for the water to boil”. Waiting for students to learn so I can teach is very challenging. I imagine it might also be challenging for other people. So here are some of things that I do instead in a flipped environment when I might have to spend 5-10 minutes not being the object of attention to get the most of the active learning environment.
- Do informal assessment. Get out a pen, look around, and observe your students. What are they discussing? What is tripping them up the most? I find this helpful because I often forget as an expert all the things I do easily that my students might not be as good at. I try to use the extra time to assess student learning so I can see overall how the class is doing. I find recording this information makes it more functional to you in the future.
- Observe inter-group dynamics. My students work with the same group all semester, and I really pay attention to how each of the group is working. Are all students working together, or in two pairs? Is there one student who seemed to be doing all the work and not letting the other students get involved? Is there a student who is on their phone and not helping? Alternately is there a student who might be struggling with the material and therefore left out of the group as they move forward on the assignment? Any of these dynamics might affect the performance of the group and are important to keep track of. Extra bonus is that this was something that you could never observe first hand before active learning; you just had to sort of guess what was happening in the groups or rely on accounts of different students. In class activities gives you a real chance to observe up close what is happening inside the group.
- Learn student names. Our Blackboard has a feature called “Photo Roster” which allows you print out a picture of all your students. I use this as I quiz myself on their names. It’s a wonderful feeling when you can surprise a student by calling them by name in class. You can do that more often if you take the time learn the students’ names. If you don’t have photo roster, you can also use name tags. This also makes it easier to start associating names with faces, so that when students email you, you know which student is which. I have between 80 and 116 students each semester, so this can be a real help.
- Prepare the next activity. The more you prep your activities, the faster you can get to them. Enough said.
- Join in. It’s always good to join a group and actually do the activities that you devise, though I will say that you tend to be faster at them then your students. This does seem to be logical first step, but you also might freak them out a little depending on the activity. But sometimes you can learn new things about your activity and do more in-depth assessment. Or sometimes you can focus your participation in a group where a student might be struggling and help that student keep on task. Also you plan really fun activities, right?
The objective of this post isn’t to say you can’t lecture. Sometimes the best way to tell people is to tell them something all at the same time. Also, sometimes to create a good learning environment, there is some need for storytelling and theatrics. But I think I’ve learn a lot of things by shutting up and watching my student work, and I think this greatly improves the classroom for everyone involved.