Does Active Learning Disadvantage the Learning Disabled?

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Active Learning is a good thing, right? As an instructional designer, I’ve read a great deal of research compiling evidence for teaching practices that promote active learning as a way to engage students and secure better learning outcomes. In my role consulting with faculty on curriculum design, I often suggest ways to increase student participation in their learning that match the learning goals and objectives articulated by the instructor. So it was a surprise to read a dissenting view in a Tomorrow’s Professor post by Fernando Gonzalez, an assistant professor of software engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University, titled For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare. [Full citation for original publication: Gonzalez, Fernando. “For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare.” ASEE Prism 26, no. 4 (December 2016): 52.]

To be clear at the outset, this is an opinion piece, based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. There is no research backing Gonzalez’s claims, at least not yet. The article is short, and I encourage you to read it for yourself. In summary, Gonzalez provides a short overview of active learning, then states that “…[active learning] can be a nightmare for students with learning disabilities (LD). While learning disabled students – including those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, visual and auditory processing deficits, ADHD, nonverbal learning disabilities, and many others – vary in how they learn and on the type of accommodation they require, a common characteristic found in most LD students is needing more time to assimilate information from a lecture.” This he contends, makes it difficult for the learning disabled student “…who may not be able to learn the material in time to participate in the active learning activity immediately following the lecture or may have problems with the activity itself.” He notes that he has severe dyslexia and states he would not have “survived” an undergraduate education heavily based on active learning, and certainly would not have then been able to go on to get a PhD.

There are weaknesses in Gonzalez’s argument, starting with his construct of active learning as mostly being “…strategies [that] consist of a lecture where the student listens passively, followed by an activity that serves to clarify and reinforce what the student has learned.” There are many active learning strategies, and it is misleading to characterize them in total as being difficult for those with learning disabilities, which also are many and varied.

He cites only one concrete example of a strategy, the minute paper, which, although it can be considered an example of active learning, is typically used to obtain formative assessment from students. These exercises are not typically graded and therefore pose little pressure for students.

That said, I do not want to dismiss Gonzalez’s concerns. I was unable to find any published research on the benefits or disadvantages of active learning strategies for learning disabled students. Indeed, it would be valuable for these students and their instructors to have evidence of teaching and learning strategies that are inclusive. If you are aware of research in this area, please share the information in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Flipped courses: What is the purpose? What are the strategies?

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, October 20, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the first Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching for the 2016-1017 academic year. A panel of faculty including Avanti Athreya, Assistant Research Professor Applied Mathematics & Statistics; Michael Falk, Professor Materials Science & Engineering; Bob Leheny, Professor Physics & Astronomy; and Soojin Park, Assistant Professor Cognitive Science; spoke briefly on their experiences and engaged in a lively discussion with attendees on Flipped courses: What is the purpose?  What are the strategies?

Avanti Athreya described flipping a large lecture course in Fall 2015 with her colleague, Dan Naiman, Professor, Applied Math & Statistics. The 4 credit course, Statistical Analysis I had previously met four times a week for 50 minutes – three lectures by faculty and one small-group meeting led by a TA.  Starting in Fall 2015, students watched several short videos (5-15 minutes each) before the week started.  The videos were created by Athreya and Naiman using Camtasia. Students then met once for a 75-minute lecture with the instructor and twice in small-groups with a TA.  During these sessions students, working in teams of three, solved problems with a TA available for help as needed.  Clicker quizzes were given at the beginning of each lecture to motivate students to watch the videos. Athreya noted that clear learning objectives were listed at the beginning of each video. Challenges included initial resistance from the students (she stated that there had been less of that this semester, the second iteration of the flipped course), and that students often need alternative explanation for concepts. Typically, the videos cover an idea in one way. In a lecture, the instructor noting confusion may offer another explanation for clarification.

Soojin Park co-teaches Cognitive Neuroscience: Exploring the Living Brain with Brenda Rapp, Professor, Cognitive Science. This 3 credit course has an enrollment on average of 250 students. Park and Rapp flipped their course in Spring 2016, with a goal of putting more emphasis on student exploration. They videotaped scripted lectures (these videos were shorter and more focused than the lectures in the traditional course) and posted them on Blackboard. Students took quizzes on the video content. Students met twice a week in sections of about 25. One section was structured as a review section, the other as an active learning section. The challenge was to create the active learning activities. They decided to emphasize practical skills, such as exercises to learn spatial areas of the brain using 3-D software. These activities were all group based. There were worksheets for each session. For the final project, students developed a mock NIH proposal. Park and Rapp found a 5% learning improvement on the final exam (the questions were reused from the previous year to allow comparison) as well as higher course evaluations.

Bob Leheny reported that he is in the fourth year of teaching an active-learning version of Introduction to Physical Sciences, which incorporates a flipped classroom model. The course serves 700 students each semester. Before class, students watch videos that were developed at the University of Illinois. Leheny noted that there is a great deal of video content already developed for teaching introductory physics, so the faculty developing the course here were spared having to create their own. Faculty are able to track how much time students spend watching the videos. The course was developed with funding from a JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative grant, which included the design and implementation of an active learning classroom that seats 80 students. In the classroom, students review the video content, then work collaboratively in groups of three on exercises and experiments that explore the topic for the day. The course is supported by three graduate student TAs and four undergraduate TAs. Leheny said that one of the challenges was time management in the active learning setting. He compared the instructor and TAs to “waiters working the tables” where students were doing the activities and exercises. There is a constant monitoring of where students are and what they need.

Michael Falk was an early adopter of flipping the course. He now flips two courses: his undergraduate Computation and Programming for Materials Scientists and Engineers, with an enrollment of 35, and a graduate course, Thermodynamics of Materials. For the undergraduate class he created his own videos using Screen Flow. Students take quizzes on the video content before class. In class students work through exercises collaboratively. Falk uses Class Spot to facilitate this work. Class Spot allows screen sharing; students can see how their classmates worked out solutions to problems. For his graduate course in thermodynamics, Falk made short, Khan Academy-style videos using Quick Time. The students watch the videos before class and use class time for problem solving. He also made use of an application called Perusall for annotation exercises. His found in general that his students like it better if there is a short recap of the video material at the beginning of class. Falk feels that the biggest challenge with flipping is finding meaningful activities for class time.

Some key points covered during discussion included:

  1. Making sure that students aren’t assigned too much to do outside of class–videos should replace some of the reading or other homework assignments.
  2. It may be necessary to incentivize students to watch the videos. This can be in the form of quizzes.
  3. If group or collaborative work is done in class, follow best practices for creating groups. Groups of three are ideal. It is best not to have two males and one female in a group as has been shown in research on gender construction of teams. Group work presents valuable experiences for students. For those going into STEM fields, collaboration will be the norm, thus is a good skill to acquire. Group work can help minimize the negative aspects of competition in a classroom.
  4. Base in-class activities on the student learning goals for the course.
  5. Keep videos short, even, or especially when using a lecture-style delivery of the content. Scripting of lecture delivery was advised, as well as adopting a modular concept. Each lecture video should focus on one idea.
  6. Faculty who had flipped their courses noted that preparation for the initial offering of the course took a tremendous investment of time, but that the results had been worth the effort involved.
  7. Several faculty from the humanities discussed whether a flipped model could be used in their class situations, and specifically whether video delivery offered any advantage over reading a text. Certainly offering a variety of learning modalities can be valuable for students coming to a course with different backgrounds and understanding. A humanities course might not benefit from being flipped in total, but having students work together in class to develop specific skills, such as close reading, could prove valuable.

In all, the session was interesting and informative. If you are an instructor on the Homewood campus, staff in the Center for Educational Resources will be happy to talk with you about flipping a course.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources.

Where goes the Lecture?

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a slash through it.At Johns Hopkins there have recently been discussions among faculty and high-level administrators around the concept of “blowing up” the lecture. Nationally, we hear and read that the lecture is ripe to be “disrupted” and replaced by online, hybrid, or flipped course experiences. This is a debate that arouses strong feelings for and against the age-old pedagogical method. But what if you aren’t in a position to re-invent your lecture-based course? The three articles reviewed in today’s post offer some insights into best practices for working within the lecture format.

In How to Teach in an Age of Distraction [The Chronicle of Higher Education October 2, 2015], Sherry Turkle, Professor, Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks at the broader issue of reaching students immersed in their electronic devices. As almost all instructors today face this challenge, the article is well worth a read, whether or not lecturing is your mode of content delivery.

Turkle defends, with caveats, the lecture, citing anecdotal evidence from colleagues that with MOOCs and flipped classes, students often miss interacting face-to-face with an esteemed faculty member. “A student in an MIT class acknowledges that she gets to listen to the professor speak in an online video, but she wishes she could hear him lecture in person. He is an international figure and has a reputation for being charismatic. She feels she is missing out.” Turkel argues that watching course content videos alone in their dorm rooms isolates students and increases their connecting learning with using electronic devices. Further, she says,

But for all its flaws, the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged. What makes the greatest impression in a college education is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own. Students watch a professor thinking on her feet, and in the best cases can say: “Someday I could do that.” What the young man meant by showing up to “something alive” was really showing up to someone alive — a teacher, present and thinking in front of him.

As stated above, Turkel’s essay focuses primarily on the value of face-to-face conversation and collaboration, arguably not the primary components of most lecture-based courses. A well-designed flipped class would be more likely to foster these pedagogies. But, in Turkel’s defense, the flipped-class trend has not guaranteed that all flipped classes are better learning experiences for students than lectures.

In Turkel’s own classes, which are small seminars, students agreed to put away their devices and focus on the discussion at hand. It is not out of the question to ask that your students do the same in a lecture class. Helping students understand what they will gain by doing so may go a long way towards getting buy in. Turkel’s essay will help you make those points.

There are other reasons to eschew the old-fashioned sage-on-the-stage approach in favor of more interactive teaching practices. Annie Murphy Paul in Are College Lectures Unfair?, an opinion piece in The New York Times [September 12, 2015] asks if college lectures discriminate. Specifically, are lectures “… biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?”

Paul cites studies conducted by scholars at the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin that suggest that the lecture format puts women, minorities, low-income, and first-generation college students at a disadvantage. The studies showed that use of active learning strategies in the classroom reversed the effect. “Research comparing the two methods [lecture vs active learning] has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Although Paul looks to flipped-format courses as the answer, there are many examples of ways in which to incorporate active learning into a lecture by using classroom polling systems (clickers), think-pair-share exercises (see more on this below), and other strategies. See Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for more ideas.

Regardless of the content-delivery format, instructors should understand the value of creating an inclusive classroom climate and the importance of teaching to students with diverse backgrounds. The JHU TILE project (Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments) is a good place to go for resources. I highly recommend watching the video The Affective Domain: Classroom Climate.

The third article, What If You Have to Lecture?  by David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa [The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae: Pedagogy Unbound, February 18, 2015] addresses the conundrum directly.  Gooblar offers three ideas to keep students engaged for those who “…simply don’t have the option of abandoning a lecture-dominated course.”

Gooblar’s first suggestion is to use regular quizzing. He cites an earlier article he wrote on the benefits of frequent low-stakes testing for student retention of information. He offers the suggestion of handing out a short multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the class that students will answer as the lecture progresses. All of the questions will be covered in your lecture. The quizzes are collected and graded at the end of every class with each quiz counting as a small percentage of the final grade. An even better pedagogical approach, Gooblar proposes, would be to have students answer the questions at the beginning of the class before the lecture, then correcting their own answers during the lecture. This approach allows students to see what they don’t understand and helps them focus on learning those points.

Gooblar second idea is to incorporate group work, a common active-learning strategy, into your lectures by putting students in pairs. Pairs work best in large lecture settings as it is easy for students to turn to the person next to them, and every student is accountable. He describes the classic think-pair-share activity, but also suggests, “Pair students up and, at various points throughout the lecture, pause and ask the pairs to share and compare notes for the previous section of the lecture. This is a good way for students to discover if they’ve missed anything important, and for misconceptions to reveal themselves quickly.”

Thirdly, he recommends that you “cultivate confusion” by asking students either in the middle of the lecture or at the end to write down their “muddiest point.” If you do this in the middle of class you should then call on students and have them read their responses so that you can address concepts that are not clear.  If students are asked at the end of class, collecting the responses, reviewing them and then responding at the beginning of the next lecture to clarify misunderstandings will help keep them on track. Gooblar maintains that this “…is a great way to break students out of the role of passive listeners….” This kind of formative assessment is a good practice for an instructor as well.

Even if you must lecture, you can ask students to be present and reinforce that by keeping them actively engaged. They can’t be on their cell phones if they are being called upon to answer questions, take graded quizzes, and pair up to discuss concepts with classmates. Be aware of the inequities that lecturing may bring and address issues of classroom climate at the beginning of your course. Use formative assessment to benefit you and your students. As you can see, a lecture doesn’t have to be a passive experience.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

Back to School

It’s freshman move-in day on our campus, signaling the end of summer and the start of classes. Today’s post offers some resources for instructors as the semester begins.

Empty lecture hall, tiered with wooden seats.The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog post from August 13, 2015 by Natalie Houston (associate professor of English, University of Houston), From the Archives: Getting Ready for the New Semester, offers tips on getting ready to teach. Whether you are new to the profession or a practiced professor, there are links to articles with suggestions on learning student names, being prepared for medical emergencies in class, and routines to help you get organized.

In the The First Day of Class: A Once-a-Semester Opportunity (Teaching Professor Blog August 19, 2015), Maryellen Weimer, (professor emerita, Penn State Berks) writes, “There’s only one first day of class. Here are some ideas for taking advantage of opportunities that are not available in the same way on any other day of the course.” She suggests using the opportunity to tell students why the course is important, why you are committed to teaching it, why they should be committed to learning the material. Take the time to learn about your students and begin building relationships with them. “[G]et students connected with each other and the course content.”

Students often complain of poor presentation methods in lectures where instructors use PowerPoint (or other presentation software applications). A common mistake is to attempt to make your slides serve two purposes by being both lecture notes and lecture slides. This leads to too much text on the slides and reading from the slide. Both practices lead to student inattention. Bryan Alexander, in Giving a great presentation: notes on using PowerPoint, (July 27, 2015) tell us, “Your argument…is the essential thing.  The slides enhance your essential argument.  They amplify it and render it easier to understand. Make and use slides accordingly.” While the focus of the article is on presentations in general, there are some good things to consider for your use of presentation software in teaching!

Thinking about flipping your course? Check out Robert Talbert’s post Four things I wish I’d known about the flipped classroom (June 5, 2014), from his blog Casting Out Nines.

Or, perhaps you are considering implementing active learning strategies in your classroom. A recent article in Nature, Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right (July 15, 2015) by M. Mitchell Waldrop, examines the problem of persistence in undergraduate STEM education. “Active problem-solving confers a deeper understanding of science than does a standard lecture. But some university lecturers are reluctant to change tack.” Waldrop stresses the importance of active learning, while analyzing the factors and challenges that contribute to slow adoption. For specific active learning strategies, see Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence website page on Active Learning. If you are going to be using an active learning classroom, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Education Innovation offers advice.

New to teaching or looking to brush up on your pedagogical skills? The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is re-offering the 8 week-long MOOC: An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, starting September 28 and running until November 19, 2015. Having taken the course last year, I highly recommend signing up. Here’s the description from Coursera:

“This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.”

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com