Tag Archives: active learning

Even though students in the active classroom learn more, they feel like they learn less

If you’ve been trying to actively engage students in your classes, I am sure you’ve felt at least some level of resistance. Even though we know from literature (e.g. Freeman et al., 2014) that active learning increases student performance, it’s sometimes difficult to convince students that we are asking them to do all the activities for their own good.

But I recently came across an article that I think might be really good to help convince students of the benefits of active learning: Deslauriers et al. (2019) are “measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” in different physics classes. They compare active learning (which they base on best practices in the given subject) and passive instruction (where lectures are given by experienced instructors that have a track record of great student evaluations). Apart from that, both groups were treated equally, and students were randomly assigned to one or the other group.

Figure from Deslauriers et al. (2019), showing a comparison of performance on the test of learning and feeling of learning responses between students taught with a traditional lecture (passive) and students taught actively for the statics class

As expected, the active case led to more learning. But interestingly, despite objectively learning more in the active case, students felt that they learned less than the students in the passive group (which is another example that confirms my conviction that student evaluations are really not a good measure of quality of instruction), and they said they would choose the passive learning case given the choice. One reason might be that students interpret the increased effort that is required in active learning as a sign that they aren’t doing as well. This might have negative effects on their motivation as well as engagement with the material.

So how can we convince students to engage in active learning despite their reluctance? Deslauriers et al. (2019) give a couple of recommendations:

  • Instructors should, early on in the semester, explicitly explain the value of active learning to students, and explicitly point out that increased cognitive effort means that more learning is taking place
  • Instructors should also have students take some kind of assessment early on, so students get feedback on their actual learning rather than relying only on their perception
  • Throughout the semester, instructors should use research-based strategies for their teaching
  • Instructors should regularly remind students to work hard and point out the value of that
  • Lastly, instructors should ask for frequent student feedback throughout the course (my favourite method here) and respond to the points that come up

I think that showing students data like the one above might be really good to get them to consider that their perceived learning is actually not a good indicator for their actual learning, and convincing them that putting in the extra effort that comes with active learning is helping them learn even though it might not feel like it. I’ve always explicitly talked to students about why I am choosing certain methods, and why I might continue doing that even when they told me they didn’t like it. And I feel that that has always worked pretty well. Have you tried that? What are your experiences?

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom
Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, Greg Kestin
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Sep 2019, 16 (39) 19251-19257; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116

How your behavior as an instructor influences how your students behave during peer instruction phases

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that how you behave as an instructor influences how your students work during peer instruction phases. But do you know what you can do to make sure that student discussions are reaching the level of critical thinking that you want? I.e., how do you construct classroom norms? There is a paper by Turpen and Finkelstein (2010) that investigates just that.

In their study, they focus on three factors of classroom culture: faculty-student collaboration, student-student collaboration and sense-making vs answer-making. For this, they use Mazur-like sequence of Peer Instruction (PI) (except that they usually omit the first silent phase) and compare their observations of instructor behavior with student observations.
On the continuum between low and high faculty-student collaboration, there are a couple of behaviors in which mainly those instructors engage who have a high collaboration with students: leaving the stage during PI phases to walk around and listen to or engage in student discussions, answering student questions, and hear student explanations publicly (often several explanations from different students). Here students have many opportunities to discuss with the instructor, and the correct response is often withheld until the students have reached a consensus. Unsurprisingly, in classes where instructors are on the high end of faculty-student collaborations, students talk to the instructor more often, have lower thresholds of asking questions, and feel more comfortable discussing with the instructor.
Looking at student-student collaboration, there are again instructor practices that appear helpful. For example, low-stakes grading does provoke competitive behavior the same way high-stakes grading would.
When using clickers, collaboration is more prevalent when discussion phases are sufficiently long, when collaboration is explicitly encouraged (“talk to your neighbor!”), and when the instructor often models scientific discourse. Modeling scientific discourse (“can you explain your assumption?”) is more effective when the instructor talks to student groups during peer instruction and they have the chance to practice the behavior rather than being one out of several hundred students listening passively, but even modeling the behavior you want in front of the class is better than not doing it.
Sense-making (in contrast to answer-making) can be encouraged by the instructor through practices like explicitly putting emphasis on sense-making, reasoning, discussion, rather than just picking an answer, which means that ample time for discussions needs to be given.
Another practice is providing explanations for correct answers (also in the lecture notes) rather than just which answer was correct.
I find it really interesting to see that the observations made by researchers on concrete teaching practices can be related to what students perceive the classroom norms in a particular course are. This means that you can explicitly employ those behaviors to influence the norms in your own classroom and create a climate where there is more interaction both between the students and yourself, and among the students. So next time you are frustrated about how students aren’t asking questions even though they obviously haven’t understood a concept, or about how they just pick a random answer without sufficiently thinking about the reasons, maybe try to encourage the behavior you want by explicitly stating what you want (and why) and by modeling it yourself?


Turpen, C., & Finkelstein, N. (2010). The construction of different classroom norms during Peer Instruction: Students perceive differences Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.6.020123

Using twitter as a tool to let students discover that the topics of their courses are EVERYWHERE

This is a method that I have been excited about ever since learning about #birdclass in the “Evidence-based undergraduate STEM teaching” MOOC last year: Help students discover that the content of your class is not restricted to your class, but actually occurs everywhere! All the time! In their own lives!

The idea is that students take pictures or describe their observations related to course materials in short messages, which are posted somewhere so every participant of the class can see them.

One example where I would use this: Hydraulic jumps. As I said on Tuesday, hydraulic jumps are often taught in a way that students have a hard time realizing that they can actually observe them all the time. Most students have observed the phenomenon, maybe even consciously, yet are not able to put it together with the theory they hear about during their lectures. So why not, in your class on hydrodynamics, ask students to send in pictures of all the hydraulic jumps they happen to see in their everyday life? The collection that soon builds will likely look something like the image below: Lots of sinks, some shots of people hosing their decks or cars, lots of rivers. But does it matter if students send in the 15th picture of a sink? No, because they still looked at the sink, recognized that what they saw was a hydraulic jump, and took a picture. Even if all of this only takes 30 seconds, that’s probably 30 extra seconds a student thought about your content, that otherwise he or she would have only thought about doing their dishes or cleaning their deck or their car.

hydraulic_jumps

A collection of images, all showing hydraulic jumps of some kind.

And even if you do this with hydraulic jumps, and not with Taylor columns or whatever comes next in your class, once students start looking at the world through the kind of glasses that let them spot the hydraulic jumps, they are also going to look at waves on a puddle and tell you whether those are shallow water or deep water waves, and they are going to see refraction of waves around pylons. In short: They have learned to actually observe the kind of content you care about in class, but in their own world.

The “classic” method uses twitter to share pictures and observations, which apparently works very well. And of course you can either make it voluntary or compulsory to send in pictures, or give bonus points, and specify what kind and quality of text should come with the picture.

You, as the instructor, can also use the pictures in class as examples. Actually, I would recommend picking one or two occasionally and discussing for a minute or two why they are great examples and what is interesting about them. You can do this as introduction to that day’s topic or as a random anecdote to engage students. But acknowledging the students’ pictures and expanding on their thoughts is really useful to keep them engaged in the topic and make them excited to submit more and better pictures (hence to find better examples in their lives, which means to think more about your course’s topic!).

And you don’t even have to use twitter. Whatever learning management system you might be using might work, too, and there are many other platforms. I recently gave a workshop for instructors at TU Dresden and talked about how awesome it would be if they made their students take pictures of everything related to their class. They were (legitimately!) a bit reluctant at first, because you cannot actually see the topic of the course, measuring and automation technology (MAT), just the fridge or camera or whatever gadget that uses MAT. But still, going about your everyday life thinking about which of the technical instruments around you might be using MAT, and discovering that most of them do, is pretty awesome, isn’t it? And documenting those thoughts might already be a step towards thinking more about MAT. At least that is what I claimed, and it seems to have worked out pretty well.

We are about to try this for a course on ceramics (and I imagine we’ll see tons of false teeth, maybe some knees, some fuses, many sinks and coffee cups and flower pots, maybe the occasional piece of jewelry ), and I am hoping they will relate what they take pictures of to processes explained in class (like sintering, which seems to be THE process in that class ;-))

I am going to try to implement it in other courses, too. Because this is one of the most important motivators, isn’t it? The recognition that what that one person talks about in front of the class all the time is actually occurring in – and relevant to – my own life. How awesome is that? :-)

Have you tried something similar? How did it work out?

Does multitasking hurt learning? Show ’em!

I am reading the “Faculty Focus” mailing list, and a side-note in one of their recent posts, “Why policies fail to promote better learning decisions” by Lolita Paff, really struck a chord with me.

The article is about how to modify policies (like no screens! compulsory attendance! etc) to help students understand why behaving in a way the policies tries to enforce is actually beneficial to them and their learning. She refers to the article “The effect of multitasking on the grade performance of business students” by Ellis, Daniels, Jauregui (2010), where they show the effect of multitasking by splitting a class in two, and allowing one half to text while the other half has to switch off their phones. It turns out that the half that wasn’t multitasking performed significantly better on a test later.

So far, so not surprising. But what Paff suggests is really simple: Rather than telling your class about how multitasking is harming their learning, or even talking explicitly about the Ellis et al. paper, re-do this experiment with your class! In times of clickers in most (many? some?) classrooms and online-testing as abundant as it is, doing this for a class period, then testing, then showing the results is really not a big deal any more. And how much more impressive for your students to see how one half of the class performs significantly better than the other than just hearing that multitasking might not be such a good idea? I would certainly like to give this a try next time I’m teaching a class where I feel that students are multitasking too much.

P.S.: Maybe you shouldn’t split your class front vs back to get those results or other factors might come into play ;-)

Yvonne Ellis, Bobbie Daniels, & Andres Jauregui (2010). The effect of multitasking on the grade performance of business students Research in Higher Education Journal

Preparing my workshop on how learning works

As you know, I’m preparing a workshop for teaching assistants in mechanical engineering at Dresden University of Technology. And even though I’ve given similar workshops successfully more than once before, it somehow happened that I changed my plan a bit here, and then changed a bit there, and am now constructing the whole workshop from scratch. Oh well…

Anyway, this is my current plan (which is going to change again more likely than not).

First: Start out with how people learn. It doesn’t work like this:

2015-09-19 14.29.49

This is not how learning works!

To talk about constructivism, I am using the examples presented in this blog post. I will talk about the consequences for teaching, for example that no matter how well we explain and describe, it would be really surprising if people understood exactly what we meant.

A nice game, by the way, that illustrates this nicely, was played at my friend Zhenya’s wedding: the couple is sitting, back to back, and each of them gets an identical set of Lego stones. Only that one person gets them assembled and the other person loose, and the person who got the assembled set has now to describe the assembled construction well enough that the other person can recreate it from their pieces! Quite fun, especially if — in contrast to how it worked at Zhenya’s wedding — they don’t define a common frame of reference first…

2015-09-19 14.29.29

“…and there are three branches on either side of the tree, and there is an apple hanging from the lowest branch on the right side”

Next, I want to talk about active learning. There are many papers on that that I have presented here on this blog, too, for example Freeman et al. (2014), Smith et al. (2009), or Crouch et al (2004). All those certainly deserve to be mentioned.

Then, I want to go into motivation, and you’ve seen a couple of blog posts on this recently (for example on why do students actually engage in learning activities or how do boundary conditions influence learning).

Obviously, the way those three topics are presented will not be a lecture, but I will be using various active learning methods (currently, there are a dozen on my list!). And while we are talking about those three topics and using those 12 different methods, we will always link back the current method to the theory of learning or motivation we are talking about at that moment.

Quite a tall order, you say? Well, yes. But all the parts have worked really well individually, so I am pretty confident that they will work even better when combined this way. I’ll let you know! And if you want to pre-book me to do a workshop where you are at, just get in touch! :-)

How do you make sure your students come prepared to your flipped course?

As I mentioned a while back, we are preparing a flipped course. And the biggest question always is how to make sure students actually prepare for class. Because if they weren’t prepared, what would you do? Repeat the content they should have read about at home and bore the few students who actually did the reading, risking that they won’t bother reading before the next class? Just pretend everybody did their reading even though they clearly don’t have a clue what you are talking about, hoping that they’ll see the necessity of preparing for your next class? Either option isn’t very tempting.
But luckily I came across a study by Heiner, Banet and Wieman (2014): “Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class”. They describe two introductory courses, physics and physiology, where they tested the method they describe, and they find that 80% of students regularly read the textbook (a lot more than what we would expect and than what has previously been reported!). So what is the secret?
They give explicit best practice suggestions, but here is what I took away from the article:
  1. Make sure the pre-read material is actually necessary for the class! So build on it rather than re-teaching it.
  2. Keep the readings short and with a clear connection to the next class. In the study, they pointed out which parts of the texts were essential and which were not.
  3. “Force” the students to look into the textbook. By referring to figures in the textbook rather than reproducing the figures in the online test, students actually have to find the book and open it – a big threshold to reading overcome right here and my favorite trick!
  4. Don’t just prescribe reading, make sure to give opportunity for practice and feedback as well. In the study, they give a 10-15 minute quiz as part of each one-hour assignment.
  5. In your quizzes, make sure the questions are easy to answer for those students who did the pre-reading assignments, and difficult for everybody else.
  6. Explain and remind students of the purpose of the reading: To prepare them for class so class time can be spent more efficiently and the expertise of the instructor is used better.

Another very encouraging finding of the study is that students report benefits of the pre-readings, for example being prepared for class, managing to keep up with the pace of class or getting feedback on their knowledge. 75% of the students state that the pre-readings were helpful for their learning (which is incidentally a higher percentage than those who mention that marks motivated them to do the readings! But since the latter one was in response to an open question this isn’t a fair comparison ;-).

Are you flipping your class already? Any advice for us?

Heiner, C., Banet, A., & Wieman, C. (2014). Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class American Journal of Physics, 82 (10), 989-996 DOI: 10.1119/1.4895008

Thank you, Archimedes!

I really like hydrostatics. Of course I like moving water even better, but even static water is great. And there are so many things to explore! If I was to teach hydrostatics any time soon, there are so many little teasers I would use.

For example this one:

A sailor is standing on the bottom step of a rope ladder, painting the outside of his ship. The bottom step is 50 cm above the water, the distance between steps is 30 cm. The flood is coming in, and the water is expected to rise by 1.5 m. How many steps will the sailor have to climb in order to keep his feet dry?

Or this one:

How much heavier will a trough in a ship lift get when a ship is inside?

A: the weight of the ship
B: the weight of all parts of the ship above the water line
C: not at all
D: I don’t know*

You might think that these are really easy questions, but then you might be surprised! Funnily enough I drafted this post weeks ago, and then last week a colleague of mine talked about how this was a really difficult question, so I had to post it now ;-)

Another question that he mentioned that students found really difficult is similar to this one:

If an anchor is dropped from a boat into a pond, what will happen to the water level?

A: It will rise
B: It will sink
C: Nothing
D: I don’t know

Answer to that one in this post

*Remember why we always include the “I don’t know” option? If not, check out some more posts on multiple choice questions under the MCQ-tag!

Peer instruction! Combine it with individual thinking or discussions with the whole class?

Make sure it stays silent during the first step of the clicker process.

When using clickers in class, there are many different possible ways of implementing clicker questions and peer instruction, for example the Mazur sequence (which is our default sequence) and the Physics Education Research Group at UMass (PERG) sequence. Let’s recall:

The Mazur sequence:
1. A concept question is asked
2. Students think individually for a couple of minutes
3. Students vote on the question
4. The result of the vote is shown as a histogram
5. Students are asked to convince their neighbor of their answer (“peer instruction”)
6. Students vote again on the same question
7. The result of the second vote is shown as a histogram
8. Lecturer explains correct response and why the distractors were incorrect

The PERG sequence:
1. A concept question is asked
2. Students discuss the question for a couple of minutes in small groups
3. Students vote (individually or as a group)
4. The result of the vote is shown as a histogram
5. Students discuss their answers with the whole class, lecturer facilitates the discussion
6. Lecturer explains correct response and why the distractors were incorrect

So the difference here is that in the Mazur sequence, students get the chance to think and vote individually before entering the peer-instruction phase, whereas in the PERG sequence, students first discuss and then discuss in an even bigger group (which is, in my experience, basically what happens when you don’t explicitly ask students to think for them selves first in the Mazur sequence).

Firstly, for both models students report that the clickers helped them learn compared to a conventional lecture, because they were more actively involved, felt motivated by receiving the immediate feedback, and felt that the instructor adapted instruction to meet their learning needs.

Secondly, in both cases students liked peer instruction, for many of the reasons we use it: They felt like they were convinced by the best arguments in the discussion, thus practicing putting forward strong arguments as well as learning the “actual content” of the course. They also mention how scaffolding, i.e. learning something from someone who only just learned it themselves is easier than learning from an expert, helps, because it is more accessible both in language and in explanation itself.

But do the different sequences make a difference? Rhetorical question, of course they do!

Almost all students preferred starting with individual thinking and voting rather than with peer discussion. They state that the individual vote forced them to think for themselves, whereas in an initial peer discussion they might slide into a passive role and unthinkingly accept answers from others.

As for class-wide discussions, while some students liked hearing both correct and incorrect responses from outside their own peer group, and some also liked the pressure that comes with knowing that you might be called upon to answer a questions as a motivator for staying focussed in class, there are drawbacks to it, too. For example, it takes a lot of time, it is easy to drift away from the question and it can easily become confusing, in addition to threatening. Benefit of class-wide discussion is seen mostly in cases where the class was clearly divided between two answer choices.

So based on this study, we should definitely make sure to have students vote individually before peer discussion, and this means enforcing silence in the classroom while the students think about what to vote.

 —

David J. Nicol, & James T. Boyle (2003). Peer Instruction versus Class-wide Discussion in Large Classes: a comparison of two interaction methods in the wired classroom Studies in Higher Education, 28 (4)

Activating students – a vicious circle?

Can we become “too motivating”?

One thing I’ve been pondering recently are vicious circles, especially in teaching and learning contexts.

Imagine this situation:

You observe that your students are not as active as you would like them to be. Hence you change something in your teaching to make them become more active: You act more entertaining, you include more peer instruction, you add clickers. Initially, your students respond, but then you notice that the more effort you put into keeping them active, the less activity they show by themselves. Hence you become even more active.

What is going on?

Teufelskreis_Motivation

Motivating students – a vicious circle?

You might have gotten caught in a vicious circle. So how do you get out again and make them take on responsibility for their own learning?

The first thing to note with vicious circles is that you are caught in one. And that even though there are several players in a vicious circle, you can only influence what you do in reaction to the other player, and how you interpret their reaction. So even though they seem to expect more entertainment from you, that does not mean that you have to provide it.

A good start would be to decide for yourself how far you want to go in “activating” your students, and from which point onwards you think they should really take on the responsibility themselves. And then, all you can do is stick to your decision. Sorry ;-) No, kidding. Basically you’ll have to help them find intrinsic motivation. Which sounds contradictory in itself. But we’ll talk about your options in a later post.

Problem-based learning: Solar eclipse, part II

PBL – the final steps.

Two weeks ago, I described the first five steps of the problem-based learning (PBL) method. Last week, we continued with the workshop and went through the final steps.

Step 6, the research phase, was completed over the week between the two workshops: Everybody worked on questions related to observing the solar eclipse safely. Results of this step were brought together last Friday in step 7:

Step 7 then finally happened on the day of the solar eclipse, March 20th. Everybody was supposed to bring the answers to the questions as well as some sort of equipment made from “household items”. This is what we ended up with:

DSC_3766

Participants of the PBL workshop watching the solar eclipse using many different methods. Picture by Alina Gruhn (thanks! :-))

I am going to describe all the different methods in Wednesday’s post, but today I want to focus on the PBL method. We had planned the workshop from 9:30 to 12 am, which luckily coincided pretty much exactly with the solar eclipse. Originally, we wanted to follow the method, i.e. bring together everybody’s results and discuss their merits, and only then start our observation. The idea was to watch over the period of maximum coverage because we thought that would be the most exciting part.

Luckily, though, facilitator Siska was flexible enough* to let us start observing only a couple of minutes into the workshop, when someone realized that we could actually see the moon moving in front of the sun. Everybody got super excited and we even brought in our colleagues who didn’t participate in the workshop to watch with us.

After a while we got back to work, and then clouds started to appear and the weather changed completely. While we had had completely clear, blue skies during the observation, it now became overcast and foggy. Good thing we didn’t wait!

So there were a lot of things to be learned during that workshop, too. (Remember, the topic of the workshop wasn’t really the solar eclipse – we had just used it as an example case. The real goal was for instructors to experience the method before they are to use it in their own teaching!). For example: If your group gets excited during the process – let them run free for a bit and use the momentum to your advantage. You miss the best learning opportunities if you don’t!

* need more proof of her flexibility? She was only that very morning told that she would have to fill in for Marisa, who wasn’t well enough to continue running the workshop!