Building Broad Minds: Active learning strategies for large classrooms

Building broad minds is not about back filling.  Broad minds are the byproduct of encountering diverse ideas, thinking deeply about them, and integrating those ideas into our own worldviews and cognitive frameworks.  In higher education, the opportunity to be exposed to the thinking of a wide variety of disciplines usually happens at the first year level. However, those are also often large courses where the primary method of instruction is listening to your professor speak.  To actually get broad minds, our learning activities have to be active, even in the large classrooms where active learning strategies are limited by the room, and even when students are first encountering the subject mater.

A great simple rule for broad minds is the 10:2 ratio. It basically means that for every 10 minutes of lecture, and student needs 2 minute of social processing to make sense of it. Lots of the time, we think group work in classes is all about assignments.  Actually, it is much more about helping us make sense of what we learning. To encourage broad thinking, consider pausing at least every 10 minutes and doing a short activity that allows student to make sense of what you’ve just tried to teach them.

Use daily active collaboration in increase understanding

  • Having students problem solve in pairs
  • Having students turn and talk to each other about the implications of a new idea you introduced or why it matters
  • Provide opportunities to try something and get feedback from a peer. You don’t have time to provide all that feedback in a large class, but feedback is helpful in both improving and remembering, and there are many other people in the room who can help.  Giving feedback also refines our understanding, so your students are learning when giving and receiving feedback.
  • Have students teach each other something quick (not a big group presentation). Read more from the research about why this is one of the best ways to improve student understanding (Topping and Stewart, 1998).

Have students engage in critical thinking and think from multiple worldviews
Developing broad minds requires encountering the major debates of the discipline early and considering them from multiple perspective.  Although it is hard to have teams of two students debate other teams of two students in a large lecture theater, all students can think and speak simultaneously.  Want to see how it would work?

 

Learn more:

Graduates with perspectives and approaches the world needs

We often talk about the skills our graduates will need for success in their work and within our communities. As we aspire to be the university the world needs, we can’t overlook how essential perspective taking and cross-cultural competence are in our increasingly diverse world.  In this place, we have a collective commitment to improve the situation for the First Nation, Metis, and Inuit peoples, and to truth and reconciliation. And we can also see the impacts of nationalism and nativism on the global stage, A problem that is prompting us to equip our students with the skills they will need to respond.This post is one in a series related to the educator commitments in Our Learning Charter. It focuses on how to help students to explicitly recognize their own position and work to understand, acknowledge, and value perspectives and worldviews different from their own.

What you can model in your teaching:

  1. Start by acknowledging your own position and privilege. Being a role model and ally is essential in supporting students in the process of doing the same thing. Knowing why you would include a land acknowledgement, for example, rather than omitting one or just adding one to your syllabus is part of an acknowledgement. Not quite sure how to approach it in a good way? Join the short course in the fall on Indigenization, decolonization and reconciliation at the Gwenna Moss Center for Teaching and Learning (GMCTL).
  2. Purposefully include content, perspectives, and worldview from local Indigenous communities and international perspectives.  The focus should be on being prepared to support a diverse world and set of different views. Need some support?  Ask for a consultation at GMCTL.
  3. Deliberately offer more than one perspective on the debates of your discipline whenever possible, and explain the value of those discussions to the disciplinary discourse. Provide opportunities for students to engage in facilitated discussions about those debates without taking a position yourself.

What you could do with your students:

  1. Choose to share your own power by using active learning strategies to get students thinking and talking, rather than transmission styles where students mostly listen. Understanding,  acknowledging, and valuing perspectives and worldviews different from their own is requires active learning processes, because it requires students to be in dialogue with the other.  Learn more about the research on active learning or experiment with some active learning strategies in your class.
  2. Provide students with deliberate opportunities to work in culturally diverse groups where they’ll be exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives that they might not encounter, given that we are more likely to self-select groups of people like us.
  3. Proactively plan for how to have challenging conversations with students in class, and how to respond when students struggle to value worldviews and perspectives other than their own.  Not sure how do this? Join the GMCTL for a workshop series on planning for and responding to difficult conversations in the classroom or preview some online resources.

View other posts in the Charter Chat series.

Charter Chats

The University of Saskatchewan has a new Learning Carter.  First written in 2010, then updated in 2018, our charter is helpful in framing what we believe about teaching and learning.  It will also provide a sense of direction for work at Gwenna Moss over the next year:

The Learning Charter thus acts as a conceptual map and planning document, linking together our pursuits and how we strive for them, encouraging and guiding us on our educational journey. As a map, it is also a focal point for our community to discuss where we are and where we want to go in our shared future.

This post will be the hub of the “Charter Chats” related to our new charter.  As each new monthly post is written, the post will be linked on this page. The chats are informal introductions to a charter educator commitment or commitments.  They explain what that commitment means for educators, and suggests one or two implications for teaching in a higher ed setting.

Here is a summary of the month each topic will be posted, its title,
and the related educator commitment.

April: Graduates with perspectives and approaches the world needs

  • Explicitly recognize their own position and work to understand, acknowledge, and value perspectives and worldviews different from their own

May: Building Broad Minds: Active learning strategies for large classrooms

  • Exemplify active learning and curiosity, demonstrate broad thinking

June: High quality, respectful classroom dialogue

  • Encourage and foster open and healthy dialogue
  • Engage with students and peers in a respectful manner
  • Co-create, with students, a shared space for learning in which all participants, including graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, feel respected, valued and empowered to contribute as they achieve their goals and share the gifts of their identities in relationship with one another

July/August: You need to practice your research skills early and often

  • Provide opportunity for students to be inspired and engaged with and in the process of authentic inquiry, wherever possible, in their learning

September: All Aligned – Outcomes (3 part series on triarchic alignment)

  • Be aware of the range of instructional methods and assessment strategies, and select and utilize teaching methods that are effective in helping students achieve the learning outcome of a course or learning activity

October: All Aligned – Instruction

  • Be aware of the range of instructional methods and assessment strategies, and select and utilize teaching methods that are effective in helping students achieve the learning outcome of a course or learning activity
  • Ensure that content is current, accurate, relevant to learning objectives, representative of the knowledge and skills being taught and appropriate to the position of the learning experience within a program of study

November: All Aligned – Outcomes-based Assessment

  • Ensure that assessments of learning are transparent, applied consistently and are congruent with learning outcomes
  • Design tools to both assess and enable student learning
  • Learn about advances in effective pedagogies/andragogies

January:  Transparent Assessment

  • Provide a clear indication of what is expected of students in a course or learning activity, and what students can do to be successful in achieving the expected learning outcomes as defined in the course outline
  • Ensure that assessments of learning are transparent, applied consistently and are congruent with learning Outcomes
  • Design tools to both assess and enable student learning

February: Feeding Learning: Mark better work in less time

  • Provide prompt and constructive feedback for students on their learning progress at regular intervals throughout the course

March: Reflection and Dialogue

  • Engage in meaningful conversations about their practices with others
  • Seek candid feedback from students about their learning experiences
  • Seek feedback from peers and other sources to allow for evidence on all aspects of teaching

Tamarind, Teaching and Undergraduate Research

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For the first time today, I tasted tamarind. I felt like I had discovered something so surprisingly delicious and interesting that I wondered why I had gone this long without knowing about it. This fruit’s benefits are wide-ranging and well known apparently—they just hadn’t been to me. I wasn’t introduced to it through family or friends, but I found information about it as I was searching for ways to reduce fluoride accumulations in the body—I was trying to solve a problem and it was one of the possible solutions to the problem.

New teaching strategies—or new-to-you teaching strategies—can be similar to discovering the tamarind fruit. Billions of people over the past 4000 years have been familiar with it, but it wasn’t within my realm of experience due to the limits of my family and social groups. With a problem to solve and Google, set off to find this fruit.

Now the leap to teaching and research…

Research I carried out on the integration of active learning into undergraduate classes, found that faculty integrated new strategies in response to problems they were trying to solve. They “found” a new strategy at a conference, workshop, or through journal articles and then used it to see if this new strategy or approach solved the problem. If it made a difference, the method was embedded in the course and if it didn’t make a difference it was dropped. Instructors used informal cycles of action research and reflective practice to renovate their teaching practices.

So here’s the thing…whether we recognize it or not we are doing “research” all the time in response to the problems we want to solve or to satisfy our curiosity. Research is learning, and learning is changing how we interact with the world. (You may have recognized this as a subtle plug for undergraduate research if you are a member of the pilot group 😉

The teaching problem: You might want to have students more engaged in their own learning because you know they learn better if they are engaged. You heard about cooperative learning being one of the most engaging teaching strategies. You find out how to implement cooperative learning and you give it a try. If you see students more engaged, you will use it again. If not, well, it was worth a try. Think tamarind fruit and be curious. And remember that just because a teaching strategy might be new to you, there are others who are very familiar with it because they have grown up in a culture where it is common practice. They can help you integrate a new strategy into your class. A good number of people who know about a variety of effective teaching strategies happen to be in the Gwenna Moss Centre. Give us a call if you are interested in more information about a wide variety of teaching approaches—including cooperative learning and undergraduate research

PhD Reform: A Speedier and Dissertation-Free Degree?

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Not long ago, I began the arduous process of applying to PhD programs. I didn’t make it far. What stopped me was not a lack of desire to push learning further, to what most graduate students see as the logical end of journey that began with their first university class. I was stopped by the nagging sense a PhD would simply take more time and resource than I had available.

Because I disliked falling prey to so utilitarian an impulse, I began looking into the PhD itself, to better understand why such a worthy intellectual endeavor appeared unsustainable and to find out if other students felt the same way.  My search led me to numerous blogs and reports about the PhD in today’s world, some of which can be found in my blog post about alt-ac careers. (alternative academic careers).

Wondering what to do with a PhD is, however, not the same as wondering why one would do a PhD at all. The latter question is better answered by examining the process rather than the outcome of earning the degree. The Academica Group’s Top Ten list featured a short round-up of current positions taken on the future of PhD programs, some of which were presented at a round table discussion during the 2014 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Two of the projects featured were McGill University’s White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities and the Modern Language Association’s Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Both of these documents recommend extensive changes to the PhD, as well as investigating career outcomes.

Both documents recommend shortening the time to completion and increasing engagement with the world outside academia. To speed up the process and increase engagement, both explored the possibility of replacing the PhD dissertation with, for instance, “a coherent ensemble of scholarly projects,” recommended by the White Paper.

Simply speeding up the time to completion would certainly reduce the opportunity cost of a PhD program, but is this a realistic goal, even if the traditional dissertation is abandoned? Alicia Peaker, development editor at GradHacker responded in this interview, “what Graduate students need is not more or less time – it’s more support.” The debate continues and is worth following, particularly if you are a student currently looking at PhD programs.