Bring on the Collaboration

Getting students to participate in class discussions is a common challenge. Every instructor has faced the dreaded silence after posing a question. Active learning activities can stimulate student engagement, but they can be difficult to implement in classrooms that were designed for lectures –  fixed seating inhibits opportunities for collaborative exercises such as group work and discussion.

Research has shown that active learning strategies can improve students’ retention of content taught in class [Michael Prince. Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 2004.] A variety of teaching methods – such as peer-instruction, discussion groups, and collaborative problem solving – can foster greater student engagement. Each of these methods requires students to connect, share information, and discuss possible solutions to posed problems, anticipating real life workplace situations.

eStudio-309_2D-finalFaculty who want to implement active learning strategies may find it challenging to manage in a space designed for lecture-based instruction. In the last decade, universities have introduced classrooms to address this challenge. Typically known as studio  or collaborative learning classrooms (CLC), such spaces often have round, movable tables for group work, ample whiteboard space, and large display screens for each group. This learning environment has a positive effect on students’ engagement; it alters their roles in the classroom from passive recipients of knowledge to active participants in their own learning.

At a National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education last summer, several Hopkins colleagues and I participated in group work in a space designed for collaboration. We were impressed by the power of that learning experience. Shortly after the workshop, we learned that the Provost’s Gateway Sciences Initiative would be underwriting the conversion of a traditional learning space (Krieger 309) into a collaborative learning classroom.  I decided to offer my Biology Workshop course in the new CLC in the fall semester of 2012.

The course was designed as a guest lecture series with some meetings set aside for group discussions.  Although we continued to offer the guest lectures in a large hall, we moved to the CLC for the group discussions and were delighted to take advantage of the features of this new space. During a typical class, I provided a 5 to 10 minutes overview of the day’s lesson plan, often using the instructor projectors to play a video or podcast highlighting a current event or controversial topic in biology. For the majority of the class time (30 minutes), students worked in groups using their own laptops to conduct research, discuss potential answers to questions, create charts and other graphics, and post content to the course Blackboard site. For ten minutes at the end of class, groups took turns presenting their work to the entire class, using their team projectors to display their work.

View of collaborative learning classroom - Krieger 309 - no studentsThe room’s design allows students to work comfortably in groups, using tools ideal for collaboration. Each group has a whiteboard adjacent to its table where students can jot down notes or conceptualize and work out problems. Students can easily project their individual laptop screens for viewing by the whole class. In addition, the instructor has control over two large screens, which is helpful when presenting materials to the entire class or sharing a group’s display with the class. The room’s layout facilitates instructor visits to each group while they work, something that is difficult in a lecture hall.

One of the nicest things about teaching in the new CLC was that students seemed toStudents inCollaborative Learning Classroom - Krieger 309 know what was expected of them. Seeing the space they knew the class would not be a typical lecture format, which intrigued them. Moreover, the students responded positively as they engaged in the discussions and participated in their groups, producing a higher caliber of work than I experienced in this course previously.

Students were amazingly “on task” during group work, which speaks to their high level of engagement and enthusiasm. They clearly felt a strong sense of responsibility for their group’s performance, particularly when presenting their findings to the class.

View of collaborative learning classroom - Krieger 309In comparison to previous iterations of this course, the students’ grades were in the same range; however, the level of engagement was much higher and it was a significantly more enjoyable teaching experience. I know that the students appreciated the active learning aspect of the course because when I presented in lecture format for more than 15 minutes, I could see them squirming in their seats.  They couldn’t wait to get started on group work. It has been a challenge to limit my introduction to just a few minutes, and then post supporting material for the students to explore during class with their groups.

Because this class had more discussion and collaborative work than when I previously taught the course, I found that it helped to prepare learning objectives for each session. This kept the focus in place during class and ensured that the group work would meet the goal for the day. It also helped set the students’ expectations for what they needed to accomplish and learn for tests.

A number of faculty have taught in the new CLC since its creation, from the departments of Chemistry, French, Physics, Mathematics, and Civil Engineering. The room is flexible enough for a number of uses and can support classes from any discipline. The way I conducted my course for instance, is similar to the teaching approach for humanities courses in which class discussions are standard. Although the students in my Biology Workshop did not often use the whiteboards, other classes used them frequently.

There are many methods for generating effective group assignments in class. I found that when my 35 students first entered the CLC, the room’s layout clearly suggested that they would be working together at the round tables, which seat seven. They gravitated naturally to self-defined groups around the tables. This proved to be effective way of forming lasting and productive groups for this class.  Other instructors may wish to randomly assign groups or to purposefully break and re-form groups throughout the course.

Additional Resources

The text for this post originally appeared in the print series of The Innovative Instructor.

Rebecca Pearlman received a PhD in Biology from the University of Wisconsin.  She has over fifteen years of teaching experience ranging from small laboratory courses at a two-year college to large lecture courses at Hopkins. She is delighted to be a lecturer in the Biology Department working with amazing colleagues who are dedicated to improving the undergraduate experience.  Her past collaborations with the CER include work on creating videos of laboratory techniques and piloting in-class voting and course management systems.

Images Source: © Reid Sczerba.


Summer Reading

If you are like many faculty, you probably have stacks of books, journals, articles (whether print or virtual) accumulating on various surfaces in your work space and home. So the last thing you are looking for is something else to read. With that as a given, The Innovative Instructor still wants to recommend another book for you.

Stack of books in a library.Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston (MSEL catalogISBNdb for online shopping price comparisons), is well worth perusing if you ever have to be teach a subject with which you are less than familiar. This situation is increasingly a common reality for faculty. Sometimes the gap between what you are asked to teach and your specialty interest is short — you’re a historian of British 20th century politics asked to teach a course on the political changes in Europe between the two world wars. Sometimes the gap is wider — Huston cites the example of a chemistry professor asked to teach a freshman year seminar called “The Common Intellectual Experience” where topics included the Declaration of Independence and slave narratives, two topics not generally covered in chemistry training (p. 11).

Huston discusses the advantages the experience can bring to an instructor who is a “content novice,” but more importantly, offers concrete steps that can be taken to teach a course outside of one’s disciplinary expertise. For example, she emphasizes the value of backward design.

Backward design involves 1) determining what you want students to be able to do as a result of taking the course, 2) deciding how you will assess their competency, and 3) based on 1) and 2) deciding what and how you will  teach. (For more on backward design see: Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. “What is Backward Design?,” in Understanding by Design. 1st edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 7-19.) However, backward design is just one of a number of strategies Huston offers.

She examines common mistakes made (assigning too much work, underestimating preparation time) and outlines tactics for surviving in the classroom. She also covers active learning strategies and other activities to engage students. These can be especially useful when you are concerned about your level of expertise in the course subject matter.

Huston is reassuring with her statement, “It may not be the world’s most comfortable teaching, but students can learn as much, if not more, than they can in classes where you’re teaching form the core of your expertise.” (p. 8). After all, the chances are excellent that no matter what you are teaching, you will know more than your students.

In fact, Teaching What You Don’t Know is full of great advice for anyone teaching, whether or not familiarity with the subject matter is an issue. There is also a section with guidelines for administrators, such as department chairs, who may be in the position of making these teaching assignments. While not a primary source for instructional basics like how to build a syllabus or stimulate engaging class discussions, the curriculum design descriptions, teaching activities, and strategies for classroom management Huston offers make the book well worth a read.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art