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November 22, 2006

Tips on teaching: Active learning

Pitt’s sixth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, held Nov. 8, included summaries from winners of 2005-2006 innovation in education grants and conversations on teaching methods and techniques with faculty, as well as workshops and technology demonstrations led by Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) staff.


The fair’s “Conversations on Teaching” sessions offered the opportunity for informal discussion and idea sharing.

Paula Sherwood, who teaches in the School of Nursing, led a discussion on engaging students in active learning as a way to enhance their understanding in her session, “Energize Your Classroom With Active Learning.” Participants in the discussion included students, faculty members and teaching assistants.

Active learning engages students in activities that make them think about what they are doing in an effort to get them to reflect and develop deeper understanding of the concepts they are learning.

Sherwood admitted that as a teacher of a class comprised mainly of adult learners, active learning is particularly important. “I teach folks who go to work from 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon and then come and sit for a three-hour class or a four-hour class,” she said. “The active learning exercises are important for me because it keeps them awake.”

Debate, group exercises, outside interviews and panel discussions are among the strategies she’s used to engage her classes.

“We use debate quite a bit,” she said, noting that the activity is particularly well-suited for her ethics class.

“We do about 45 minutes of didactic information where they read a lot before they come to class; then they get up and they’ll debate a topic or an issue,” Sherwood said, noting that the technique has yielded mixed results.

“The nice thing about that is that they’re really thinking through all of the situations. The unfortunate thing about all that is if they don’t prepare, they don’t read or if they’re not ready to do it, it falls flat.”

Another opportunity for active learning she’s employed is requiring students to do an interview with someone different from themsselves outside of class as part of their study on race, culture and sexual orientation as ethical issues in health care.

Students are given targeted questions about how those factors affect a person’s access to health care. Students then share their experiences and also write a paper based both on the interview and the ethical concepts their findings illustrate.

“It really not only drives it home, but it makes it practical,” Sherwood said.

Others in the audience asked about applying active learning to shorter presentations or classes.

Participant Andrea Hergenroeder, a new faculty member in physical therapy, said she has used discussion, open-ended questions and case studies as a way to engage students and draw out some who might be reticent to speak.

Her lectures often take the form of PowerPoint presentations, which she combines with short questions for group discussion. Hergenroeder said she was seeking additional techniques, such as panel discussion, to add to her teaching strategies. Panel discussions work very well at the graduate level, Sherwood said, but perhaps not as well at the undergraduate level.

Another form of active learning Sherwood said she uses is challenging students to argue the side of a controversial issue that is opposite their own views. “They have to have done the readings, pull in the arguments, figure out how to structure a logical argument and then I give them 45 minutes to debate and then go from there,” Sherwood said.

Another tactic she’s considering is selecting students to make presentations pro and con on a case to a mock ethics board made up of fellow class members.

“What they would get out of it is how to create the logical argument, how to present your case and how to really think through all the different avenues to make sure you’re not going to be challenged on something you don’t have an answer for. So, they’re really getting the process,” she said.

Hergenroeder said the challenge in her class is that the topics may not lend themselves as well to discussion as in Sherwood’s ethics-oriented courses. “With a lot of the answers, there is a true, correct thing to do,” she said.

Sherwood suggested finding topics for case presentations on something controversial in that area such as a new drug or procedure that has yet to become completely accepted.

Sherwood also addressed questions from other participants who sought ideas for active learning that would fit into shorter class periods.

Participant Diane Davis, CIDDE director, noted that knowing where students stand in their understanding of a topic can be crucial to moving them forward effectively. She suggested teachers may use the student response system “clickers” to gauge a group’s knowledge and use their answers as a way to introduce a topic or to most efficiently structure a presentation.

By knowing what students know or don’t know based on the answers that emerge when polling the class, professors can move quickly to the knowledge gaps to better serve their students.

The technique can get students used to the idea that they play a role in the class and are not merely passive observers, Davis said.

One School of Education student noted that rather than inhibit conversation, as some teachers feared the clickers might, surveying the class actually sparked conversation and debate as students defended their chosen answers, emboldened by the classroom tallies that showed that they were not alone in their views.

Other active learning techniques discussed included distributing unlabeled diagrams for students to fill out during the course of a lecture to keep them engaged or distributing index cards on which students write a question at the end of the class based on the day’s lecture. The questions could be answered either online or in a future class.

Davis noted that active learning “doesn’t mean we have to be doing something with our physical hands; it really does mean we’re engaged and connected with what’s going on and a lot of that happens mentally in the classroom.”

The problem: It’s not always visible, she said.

She encouraged faculty to contact CIDDE for help in fleshing out ideas to introduce effective active learning strategies to their classes.

“The last thing we want to do is have you doing something that’s great fun but it doesn’t contribute to the course objectives,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 7

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