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?

 

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Getting More Active (and getting more learning)

The holidays are a time of year that are almost inevitably followed by a feeling that you should be more active after all those treats and large meals.  Many educators want their students to be more active and engaged, but like the post-holiday feeling that you should be more active, it is hard to turn that good will into consistent action in your instruction.  This post focuses on easy changes to make your course more active.

Step 1- Clarify the purpose of active learning in your class
Active learning is time in your classroom when students are actively thinking, talking, and making sense of ideas.  It is contrasted with passive learning, when students are being receptive (listening, note taking, etc.)  An individual class is typically considered active when 60% or more of the time is students thinking and talking, rather than the instructor explaining. To get started with active learning, identify a key or threshold concept (Meyer and Land, 2003) that students need to understand well and use often, but seem to struggle with.  That’s a great place to focus on active learning, because active learning processes make it more likely your students will be able to retain and apply what they have learned.

Step 2 – Consider options
Before you make any type of change, you often need to consider possible options.  Start will some videos  or browse some resources and think about the strategies that might fit well given your content and discipline. It is essential that the specific strategy fit the concept you need student to make sense of, so you can’t just pick one at random.  For threshold concepts, strategies like error analysis, concept formation/concept attainment etc. are often the most effective.  If you’d like someone to help you consider some options best suited to you, but you don’t want to wade through the options, make a short appointment with Gwenna Moss. We’ll suggest some great options given what you explain about the concept that you are teaching and the size of your class.

Step 3 – Try something small

  1. Start by really clarifying how the process will work in your own mind.
  2. Identify what you’ll still need to teach directly so students have enough knowledge to do the active task.
  3. Choose a class you are comfortable in, and explain how important the concept is and why you’ll be using an active strategy.  If you haven’t used the particular strategy you are trying, explain the process and what behavior you’ll expect explicitly.
  4. Use the strategy, circulating to help or prompt students often.
  5. Once you are done with the activity, summarize the key takeaways and implications with your students.  Next time this key concept comes up, refer back to the activity and the lessons learned.  You use the summarizing and references to prior learning to ensure students are connecting the learning well, and didn’t miss anything essential.

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