On February 9, Dr. LeAnn Dourte of Bioengineering and Professor Paul Heiney of Physics led an Engineering Faculty Teaching Forum on Teaching in Active-learning Classrooms. Dourte and Heiney shared their experiences teaching highly active classes in recent semesters, classes in which they replaced much of the lecture time with highly structured group activities. The group discussed reasons for designing a class around active learning, strategies for Structured Active In-class Learning and the impact such teaching could have on students.
Participants expressed the desire to encourage students to learn by doing, to learn how to approach problems and to connect the physical with mathematical expression. For Dourte and Heiney, implementing these practices meant giving their students challenging problems to work on in groups during class time. In both cases, they provided explicit steps to guide the students through the problem-solving process: for example, asking students to represent the problem in drawings and words before jumping into the equations and numbers. To encourage students to work together, something both Dourte and Heiney felt was important for student engagement and learning, they both assign groups and specific roles to each group member. Furthermore, both Dourte and Heiney require one copy of a group’s answers to the in-class assignment at the end of class. Although this is graded mostly on participation, they both felt that the act of handing in the assignment helped to motivate students to think more deeply about the in-class work. Although Dourte and Heiney still do not have enough evidence to definitively say that their students are benefitting from this structure, they both felt that their students had become better problem solvers than they might have otherwise.
The group also considered obstacles to SAIL and to teaching in active learning rooms. First of all, it takes considerable instructor time to adapt a class. In this regard, the group discussed ways to ease into active learning. For example, Dourte discussed the fact that she still lectures for some class meetings. However, she also noted the challenges associated with lecturing to students in an active learning classroom in which the students are at round tables, facing various directions. Some of the other participants have asked their TAs to make their recitations problem-based with interactive group work as an alternate way to increase the amount of active learning without overhauling a class. Another challenge discussed was the fact that not all students appreciate the change and the work required. Regarding the last point, though, the group shared a common reaction: if the teaching strategy gets students engaged in thinking about the material and working hardthat in itself is positive.