Tag Archives: active learning

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?


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:


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!


Problem-Based Learning: Solar eclipse

Workshop on PBL, using the upcoming solar eclipse (on Friday!) as a case study.

I am currently attending a workshop run by one of my all-time favorite colleagues, Marisa, on Problem-Based Learning. The workshop is aimed at people who want to use PBL in their teaching, and is split into three sessions. By pure dumb luck I realized that the second session will be on March 20th, the day of the solar eclipse. So of course I had to hijack the workshop a make her write a case study on that topic! (We really had to – I don’t think we could expect anyone to sit inside and work on some old case study if a solar eclipse was happening outside).


Marisa teaching us how to use PBL

I am going to use that case and that workshop to talk you through the concept of problem–based learning.

The solar eclipse case.

In a nutshell, this is our case: Imagine it’s your god-daughter’s 7th Birthday on March 20th, 2015. She’s super into astronomy and you want to watch the solar eclipse with her. You don’t want to buy equipment, but you know she gets very excited and therefore need to make sure she’s ok. What do you do?

The seven steps of PBL

During the first workshop last Friday, we went through steps 1 to 5 of the Maastricht PBL model. Before the first step, Marisa gave a brief introduction to the method, and picked someone to document the discussion. Usually you would also pick someone to lead the discussion, but since we were all inexperienced with the method, Marisa took that role herself – something she’s recommend we do the first time we do PBL in class, too.

1. Clarifying terms

In this step, participants read the case and make sure they understand all the terms. For example, in our case, people discussed “equipment”, “household items” (which we had said they could only use for their equipment) and “solar eclipse”. Discussion here is merely to clarify that everybody reads the case the same way – if terms came up that we couldn’t come to an agreement on in this step, we wouldn’t do research now but postpone it to step 2.

2. Defining the problem

Here, all possible questions that we might want to answer during this PBL case were collected. Again, we were not answering anything yet, just collecting facets of the problem that people thought were interesting and should be investigated. For us, this meant for example “what can we use to protect our eyes?”, “will we need to make sure our god-daughter gets out of school so we can take her to watch the solar eclipse?”, “how much background do we want to convey to her?”.

The second question – about how we’d get her out of school, was answered by Marisa: We can assume that that is not an issue. So here the tutor can interfere and guide the discussion if it leads too far from the desired learning goals.

3. Brainstorming

In this step, we collect all kinds of possible answers to the questions brought up in step 2. Since this is still a brainstorming phase, they should not be judged or discussed, just collected. So for example we came up with different activities that we could pursue with her in case the weather was bad or possibly for giving her a bit of a theoretical background before watching the solar eclipse.

4. Structuring and hypothesis

Now we took keywords from phase 2 and 3 and sorted them. As a group, we didn’t actually decide on whether to sort by importance or by logical order of steps (so for example if we looked at the weather forecast and were sure we would not be able to see anything, we would not need to look into eye protection, however eye protection seems really important and also fun to investigate). It was interesting to see how it led to quite some frustration that people weren’t sorting following the same criteria, yet nobody “made” the group decide which criteria they wanted to use.

5. Learning objectives

In this step, the structure found in step 4 is being written up in complete questions – those are the questions that will be answered later.

So all that is missing now are steps 6, “Searching for Information”, which students are currently doing and which should be finished by Friday, and 7, “Synthesis”, which we will do on Friday.

Working with people who will later use PBL in their teaching, one of the important points was to let them experience what it is like to be a student in a PBL setting. Seeing how frustrated some people got, and how we really often didn’t know what to do was super important to get an idea of what it would be like for our students.

Until now, nothing “step 6″ish has happened. I am curious how much work outside of the workshop is going to get done, and if it will get done by a group or by individuals. I’m kinda itching to get the group together to discuss, but I’m going to try to not do it and see what happens.

I’ll keep you posted on my experience with step 6 and 7, on how I can see myself using this method, and on how things turn out :-)

Let’s do the wave! Longitudinal or transversal?

A simple visualization of two types of waves.

The FIFA world cup has been over for a while now, but I still need to share an idea I had watching one of the games when the audience got bored and started doing a wave around the stadion: this would be a great in-class demonstration of how waves do not transport matter! I usually show demos of waves travelling on ropes, but this could be much more fun – to see the shape of the wave travelling when clearly the students are not moving away from their spots.

Depending on how easy it is to calm that particular class down again you might even consider letting them do a longitudinal wave, too.

Have fun and let me know how it goes!

How to make demos useful in teaching

Showing demonstrations might not be as effective as you think.

Since I was talking about the figures I bring with me to consultations yesterday, I thought I’d share another one with you. This one is about the effectiveness of showing demonstrations in the classroom.

As you might have noticed following this blog, I’m all for classroom demonstrations. In fact, my fondness for all those experiments is what led me to start this blog in the first place. But one question we should be asking ourselves is for what purpose we are using experiments in class: “Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment?”. The answer is given in this 2004 article by Crouch et al., and it is one that should determine how exactly we use classroom demonstrations.

The study compares four student groups: a group that watched the demonstration, a group that was asked to make a prediction of the outcome and then make a prediction and then watched the demonstration, a group that was asked to make a prediction, watched the demonstration and then discussed it with their peers, and a control group that did not see the demonstration. All groups were given explanations by the instructor.

So how much did the groups that saw the demonstration learn compared to the control group? Interestingly, this varied between groups. Tested at the end of the semester without mentioning that a similar situation had been show in class, for the outcome, watching the demonstration led to a learning gain* of 0.15, predicting and then watching lead to a learning gain of 0.26 and predicting, watching and discussing lead to a learning gain of 0.34. For a correct explanation, this is even more interesting: watching the demonstration only lead to a learning gain of 0.09, predicting and watching to 0.36 and predicting, watching and discussing to 0.45.


Learning gains found by Crouch et al (2004) for different instructional methods of classroom observations.

So passively showing demonstrations without discussion is basically useless, whereas demonstrations that are accompanied by prediction and/or discussion lead to considerable learning gains, especially when it comes to not only remembering the correct outcome, but also the explanation. Which ties in with this post on the importance of reflection in learning.

Interestingly, in that study the time investment that led to the higher learning gains is small – just two extra minutes for the group that made the predictions, and 8 minutes for the group that made the predictions and then discussed the experiment in the end.

Since you are reading my blog I’ll assume that you don’t need to be convinced to show demonstrations in your teaching – but don’t these numbers convince you to not just show the demonstrations, but to tie them in by making students reflect on what they think will happen and then on why it did or did not happen? Assuming we are showing demonstrations as learning tools rather than (ok, in addition to) as entertainment – shouldn’t we be making sure we are doing it right?

* The learning gain is calculated as the ratio of the difference between the correct outcomes of the respective groups and the control group, and the correct outcome of the control group: (R-Rcontrol)/Rcontrol. For the actual numbers, please refer to the original article.

Should we ask or should we tell?

Article by Freeman et al., 2014, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”.

Following up on the difficulties in asking good questions described yesterday, I’m today presenting an article on the topic “should we ask or should we tell?”.

Spoiler alert – the title says it all: “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”. Nevertheless, the recent PNAS-article by Freeman et al. (2014) is really worth a read.

In their study, Freeman and colleagues meta-analyzed 225 studies that compared student learning outcomes across science, technology, engineering and mathmatics (STEM) disciplines depending on whether students were taught through lectures or through active learning formats. On average, examination scores increased by 6% under active learning scenarios, and students in classes with traditional lecture formats were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those in active learning classes.

These results hold for all STEM disciplines and through all class sizes, although it seems most effective for classes with less than 50 students. Active learning also seems to have a bigger effect on concept inventories than on traditional examinations.

One interesting point the authors raise in their discussion is whether for future research, traditional lecturing is still a good control, or whether active learning formats should be directly compared to each other.

Also, the impact of instructor behavior and of the amount of time spent on “active learning” are really interesting future research topics. In this study, even lectures with only as little as 10-15% of their time devoted to clicker questions counted as “active”, and even a small – and doable – change like that has a measurable effect.

I’m really happy I came across this study – really big data set (important at my work place!), rigorous analysis (always important of course) and especially Figure 1 is a great basis for discussion about the importance of active learning formats and it will go straight into the collection of slides I have on my whenever I go into a consultation.

Check out the study, it is really worth a read!

On asking questions

How do you ask questions that really make students think, and ultimately understand?

I’ve only been working at a center for teaching and learning for half a year, but still my thinking about teaching has completely transformed, and still is transforming. Which is actually really exciting! :-) This morning, prompted by Maryellen Weimer’s post on “the art of asking questions”, I’m musing about what kind of questions I have been asking, and why. And how I could be asking better questions. And for some reason, the word “thermocline” keeps popping up in my thoughts.

What a thermocline is, is one of the important definitions students typically have to learn in their intro to oceanography. And the different ways in which the term is used: as the depth range where temperatures quickly change from warm surface waters to cold deep waters, as, more generally, the layer with the highest vertical temperature gradient, or as seasonal or permanent thermoclines, to name but a few.

I have asked lots of questions about thermoclines, both during lectures, in homework assignments, and in exams. But most of my questions were more of the “define the word thermocline”, “point out the thermocline in the given temperature profile”, “is this a thermocline or an isotherm” kind, which are fine on an exam maybe, than of a kind that would be really conductive to student learning. I’ve always found that students struggled a lot with learning the term thermocline and all the connected ones like isotherm, halocline, isohaline, pycnocline, isopycnal, etc.. But maybe that was because I haven’t been asking the right questions? For example, instead of showing a typical pole-to-pole temperature section and pointing out the warm surface layer, the thermocline, and the deep layer*, maybe showing a less simplified section and having the students come up with their own classification of layers would be more helpful? Or asking why defining something like a thermocline might be useful for oceanographers, hence motivating why it might be useful to learn what we mean by thermocline.

In her post mentioned above, Maryellen Weimer gives several good pieces of advice on asking questions. One that I like a lot is “play with the questions”. The main point is that “questions promote thinking before they are answered”. So rather than trying to make students come up with the correct answer as quickly as possible after the question has been posed, why not let them produce multiple answers and discuss the pros and cons before settling on one of the answers? Or why not ask a question, not answer it right away, and come back to asking it over the course of the lesson or even over several lessons? I think the fear is often that if students don’t hear the right answer right away, they’ll remember a wrong answer, or lose interest in the question. However, even though this does sound plausible, this might not be how learning actually works.

A second piece of advice that I really liked in that post is “don’t ask open-ended questions if you know the answer you’re looking for”. Because what happens when you do that is, as we’ve probably all experienced, that we cannot really accept any answer that doesn’t match the one we were looking for. Students of course notice, and will start guessing what answer we were looking for, rather than deeply think about the question. This is actually a problem with the approach I suggested above: When asking students to come up with classifications of oceanic layers from a temperature section – what if they come up with something brilliant that does unfortunately not converge on the classical “warm upper layer, thermocline, cold deep layer” classification? Do we say “that’s brilliant, let’s rewrite all the textbooks” or “mmmh, nice, but this is how it’s been done traditionally”? Or what would you say?

And then there is the point that I get confronted with all the time at work; that “thermocline” is a very simple and very basic term, one that one needs to learn in order to be able to discuss more advanced concepts. So if we spent so much of our class time on this one term, would we ever get to teach the more complicated, and more interesting, stuff? One could argue that unless students have a good handle on basic terminology there is no point in teaching more advanced content anyway. Or that students really only bother learning the basic stuff when they see its relevance for the more advanced stuff. And I actually think there is some truth to both arguments.

So where do we go from here? Any ideas?

* how typical a plot to show in an introduction to oceanography that one is, is coincidentally also visible from the header of this blog. When I made the images for the header, I just drew whatever drawings I had made repeatedly on the blackboard recently and called it a day. That specific drawing I have made more times than I care to remember…


Remember my ABCD voting cards? Here is how the professionals do audience response.

Remember my post on ABCD voting cards (post 1, 2, 3 on the topic)?

I then introduced them as “low tech clickers”. Having never worked with actual clickers then, I really really liked the method. And I still think it’s a neat way of including and activating a larger group if you don’t have clickers available. But now that I have worked with actual clickers, I really can’t imagine going back to the paper version.

So what makes clicker that much better than voting cards?

Firstly – students are truly anonymous. With voting cards nobody but the instructor sees what students picked. But having the instructor see what you pick is still a big threshold. And to be honest – as the instructor, you do tend to remember where the correct answers are typically to be found, so it is totally fair that students hesitate to vote with voting cards.

Secondly – even though you as the instructor tend to get a visual impression of what the distribution of answers looked like, this is only a visual impression. The clicker software, however, keeps track of all the answers, so you can go back after your lecture and check the distributions. You can even go back a year later and compare cohorts. No such thing is possible with the voting cards unless you put in a huge effort and a lot of time.

Third – the distribution can be visualized in real time for the students to see. While with the voting cards I always tried to tell the students what I saw, this is not the same thing as seeing a bar diagram pop up and seeing that you are one out of two students who picked this one option.

If you read German – go here for inspiration. My colleague is great with all things clicker and I have learned so much from him! Most importantly (and I wish I had known this back when I used the voting cards): ALWAYS INCLUDE THE “I DON’T KNOW” OPTION. Especially when you make students to pick an answer (as I used to do) – if you don’t give them the “I don’t know” option, all you do is force them to guess, and that can really screw up your distribution as I recently found out. But more about that later…

P.S.: If I convinced you and you are now looking for alternatives to paper voting cards but can’t afford to buy a clicker system – don’t despair. I might write a post about it alternative solutions at some point, but if you want to get a couple of pointers before that post is up, just shoot me an email…

Introducing voting cards (post 3/3)

How do you introduce voting cards as a new method in a way that minimizes student resistance?

As all new methods, voting cards (see post on the method here, and on what kind of questions to ask here) first seem scary. After all, students don’t know what will happen if they happen to chose the wrong answer. Will they be called out on it by the instructor? Will everybody point at them and laugh? And even if they chose the correct answer, will the instructor make them explain why they chose that answer?

Some of my students in a staged photo. They are showing their favorite color to demonstrate the method for you. Thanks for posing for me!

When I introduce voting cards to a new group of students, I make sure to talk through all issues before actually using the cards. It is important to reassure the students that wrong answers will not be pointed out publicly, for example. It helps to use a very simple question that does not have right or wrong answers (“Which of these four colors is your favorite? Show me the one you like best!”) for the very first vote, so students get to experience the process without there being anything at stake. While showing their favorite color, they see that they cannot actually see their neighbors’ choices without making it very obvious (at least not in the classical lecture theatre setting that we are in, but even in other settings it is difficult). Hence their peers cannot actually see their own choice, either, without again making it very obvious.

In the picture above, students are very happy to show their votes to everybody – after all, there is no wrong answer and I asked them to pose. But this is what it typically looks like after students have gotten used to the method. During the first classes, voting usually looks more like this: Very close to the chest, held with both hands, shielding it from the neighbors.

During the first classes, voting usually looks like pictured above: Very close to the chest, held with both hands, shielding it from the neighbors.

Still there is probably going to be some resistance about committing to one answer because, after all, the instructor will still see it. But in my experience this can be overcome when the reasons for choosing the method are made sufficiently clear – that it benefits them to commit to one answer, because making thought processes explicit helps their learning. That it helps me, because I get a better feel of whether everybody understood a concept or only just the two vocal students, and whether I need to go into more detail with a concept or not. That it is a great basis for discussions.

Photo of an actual vote. In fact of the first vote after I asked them to pose for a staged photo (the one shown above). This question was clearly too easy!

After a couple of classes, voting cards are not even needed any more (although it can’t hurt to hand them out – it feels like less pressure if you could fall back on holding something up rather than speaking in public); discussion starts without having to be initiated through a voting process and subsequent questions for clarification. Also if they chose to still vote, students get much more daring in the way they hold up the cards – they stop caring about whether their peers can see what they voted for. So all in all a great technique to engage students.

How to pose questions for voting card concept tests (post 2/3)

Different ways of posing questions for concept tests are being presented here

Concept tests using voting cards have been presented in this post. Here, I want to talk about different types of questions that one could imagine using for this method.

1) Classical multiple choice

In the classical multiple choice version, for each question four different answers are given, only one of which is correct. This is the tried and tested method that is often pretty boring.

An example slide for a question with one correct answer

However, even this kind of question can lead to good discussions, for example when it is introducing a new concept rather than just testing an old one. In this case, we had talked about different kinds of plate boundaries during the lecture, but not about the frame of reference in which the movement of plates is described. So what seemed to be a really confusing question at first was used to initiate a discussion that went into a lot more depth than either the textbook or the lecture, simply because students kept asking questions.

2) Several correct answers

A twist on the classical multiple choice is a question for which more than one correct answer are given without explicitly mentioning that fact in the question. In a way, this is tricking the students a bit, because they are used to there being only one correct answer. For that reason they are used to not even reading all the answers if they have come across one that they know is correct. Giving several correct answers is a good way of initiating a discussion in class if different people chose different answers and are sure that their answers are correct. Students who have already gained some experience with the method often have the confidence to speak up during the “voting” and say they think that more than one answer is correct.

3) No correct answer

This is a bit mean, I know. But again, the point of doing these concept tests is not that the students name one correct answer, but that they have thought about a concept enough to be able to answer questions about the topic correctly, and sometimes that includes having the confidence to say that all answers are wrong. And it seems to be very satisfying to students when they can argue that none of the answers that the instructor suggested were correct! Even better when they can propose a correct answer themselves.

4) Problems that aren’t well posed

This is my favorite type of question that usually leads to the best discussions. Not only do students have to figure out that the question isn’t well posed, but additionally we can now discuss which information is missing in order to answer the question. Then we can answer the questions for different sets of variables.


One example slide for a problem that isn’t well posed – each of the answers could be correct under certain conditions, but we do not have enough information to answer the question.

For example for the question in the figure above, each of the answers could be correct during certain times of the year. During summer, the temperature near the surface is likely to be higher than that near the bottom of the lake (A). During winter, the opposite is likely the case (B). During short times of the year it is even possible that the temperature of the lake is homogeneous (C). And, since the density maximum of fresh water occurs at 4degC, the bottom temperature of a lake is often, but not inevitably, 4degC (D). If students can discuss this, chances are pretty high that they have understood the density maximum in freshwater and its influence on the temperature stratification in lakes.

5) Answers that are correct but don’t match the question.

This is a tricky one. If the answers are correct in themselves but don’t match the question, it sometimes takes a lot of discussing until everybody agrees that it doesn’t matter how correct a statement is in itself; if it isn’t addressing the point in question, it is not a valid answer. This can now be used to find valid answers to the question, or valid questions to the provided answers, or both.

This is post no 2 in a series of 3. Post no 1 introduced the method to the readers of this blog, post no 3 is about how to introduce the methods to the students you are working with.