2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 1: Practical Tips for Active Learning

A Report from the Trenches

The next several posts will be in the form of reports from the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI) 2nd Annual Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences. The symposium featured five breakout sessions and many of us attending wished we could clone ourselves and attend more than one, as the topics were so interesting. So to those who couldn’t bilocate, and to those who couldn’t attend the symposium, these posts are for you.

First up is “Moving from Lecture-based Teaching to Active Learning Instructional Approaches: Some Practical Tips” facilitated by Robin Wright, PhD, Associate Dean and Professor of Biology, University of Minnesota.

Robin Wright practiced what she preaches in this breakout session, quickly moving the participants into an active learning activity.

Engaging in active learning discussion.To begin she told faculty to “…start where you are, you don’t need to start over. Start with your current lecture notes and identify the key learning outcomes. What can you do instead of telling your students?” (Remember that the one who does the work does the learning. When you tell your students, you are doing the work.)

She asked participants to think about their favorite lecture, or their worst one. She then discussed the principle of backward design – an instructor looks at what s/he wants students to know and/or be able to do at the end of the course.  Dr. Wright noted that the advantage of backward design is by starting with defining the desired end result, instructors can create appropriate assessments and activities. As well, students can be told what they can expect to learn. Setting clear expectations helps students achieve the goals set for them.

She then asked everyone to define a learning outcome and design an assessment to determine how well students reached the outcome, directing three questions to the participants:

  1. What do you want students to know or be able to do [think in terms of the lecture you’ve selected – what do you want the students to learn from that lecture]?
  2. How will you assess their learning?
  3. What activities will you plan to help them reach your specific goals?

Dr. Wright walked the participants through an example from her own class, defined the outcome, described activities that moved students from a lower level  to a higher level (Bloom’s Taxonomy) with activities, and described how assessed.

Then the participants were set to work on writing one higher level learning outcome and an appropriate assessment and discussing these with the people sitting near them. Everyone appeared to be very enthusiastic about this exercise. In sharing after the small group exchanges we heard the following comments:

It was difficult for many to get started.
It was a powerful tool for determining what the class should focus on.
Participants refined their learning outcomes and assessments in discussion with others.

Dr. Wright then talked about the “tools in her toolkit” that she uses as activities and gave examples of some of these:

  1. Figures from the textbook projected and used as a basis for questions for small group discussion.
  2. Trick questions (questions which may seem to have an obvious answer, but the “obvious answer” is not the correct one).
  3. Videos used to challenge thinking and promote discussion, often used as a way to introduce broad subjects (e.g., evolution) to her classes.
  4. Case studies used to get students to think critically and to begin to learn on their own, outside of the classroom.

She introduced each “tool” with a specific example, and had participants briefly discuss possible answers to questions she would ask her students. Again, the participants gained an understanding of how to incorporate active learning into the classroom through an active learning process.

View the video of Robin Wright’s 2013 GSI Symposium keynote address “Teach What Really Matters; Use What Really Works.” 

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft clip art