Falling behind and the active classroom

Active Learning, collaborative problem solving, Discovery-Based explorations, Flipped Classrooms. Current pedagogy in college science teaching has undergone a sea-change away from the traditional (entertaining) lectures to small groups of students working together to learn concepts and disciplinary methodological approaches.

Many of the posts in this blog are about specific class activities and assignments that increase the active engagement of students in the classroom. ¬†Sometimes these activities foster a kind of magical coming together of minds and new insights. Often, though, I’m left feeling frustrated and wondering if the students really did learn what I had hoped when I spent all those hours putting together the class session plan.

How do you know the activity was really the most effective way to use the class session, as opposed to modeling how to bring concepts together in new ways at the board or on the projector? What happens if your students start falling behind in their work?

Like many human studies, pedagogical experiments have been done where there are two different sections of a class. One section gets the “traditional” lecture style and the other a smattering of active learning activities. Give both an exam and compare the scores. Or, interview the students and ask them to provide information about how engaged they felt, whether they felt they learned anything. The results of many of the studies that I have read most often report that the students in the active learning environment felt more engaged and the test scores seem to be higher. Usually the effect is small.

Groups of students vary enormously from section to section. Class dynamics and the level of shared community vary with the individuals in the classroom. One group might settle into a vivacious and focused group, while another might be silent and removed. The time of day, day of the week, time of semester, classroom layout, all play roles in the student engagement and thus the learning environment in your classroom.

It’s difficult to have the flexibility to change your class session design mid-stream. What do you do if your particular class of students just can’t seem to work well in teams? What do you do if your particular students just don’t have an adequate background to be ready for student-directed activities? What do you do if a large enough number of your students just don’t do the reading and preparatory work before coming to class?

image from: http://ajr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/falling-behind-bach-cover-higher.png

As faculty, we need to be flexible, to adapt our teaching strategies to fit the classroom community. Be ready to switch to lecture-mode and encourage your students to catch up with the reading. Warn them in advance if reading or viewing something in advance of class is crucial that day. You can incentivize their preparation by having a small assignment due at the beginning of the class period as a ticket to enter. Or, you can say you are going to give them a short reading quiz at the beginning of class. If they have the warning, it’s more likely they will be prepared. Help them learn how to read and prepare on their own by giving them guiding questions to have as they read. Then, you can do your active learning strategies to greater effect. But, keep in mind your students’ workloads. Some times of the semester, with midterms and large papers coming due, they just may not have the time to be prepared for your class. Giving them a break with a lecture will keep them engaged and give them the time they need to catch up. But make sure they know it’s a break and that they need to re-engage with your class.