TLS Tips: Strategies for Classes with Lots of Active Learning

I recently worked with our TLS GRA, Grace, to prepare for and teach a set of instruction sessions that consist entirely of teaching students about evaluating information. I always look forward to this class because it gives me the unique opportunity to spend an entire class period focusing on a single learning outcome. Any time I get a chance to plan a class with a narrow focus, I immediately think about active learning. Me lecturing about evaluation for an entire class period sounds like a painful experience for all involved, and in my experience, students learn this skill better by talking with one another and working through examples.

The basic class plan included students working in groups to read a short assigned article (different kind of articles on the same topic), then answer a set of questions in Google Forms designed to lead them through info evaluation. After that activity, we had each table report out on what kind of information they had, its strengths and weaknesses, and whether they would recommend it for a friend considering trying a specific diet (the topic of the articles). We then had a class discussion on different information formats and their possible uses. Although I’ve been teaching with active learning for years, I still get nervous before leading a class that relies almost entirely on student engagement. I’d like to share a few strategies and challenges I typically think about when planning active learning sessions.

1) Set expectations for participation early and often. I told students from the start that there would be lots of group work and class discussions. This probably wasn’t surprising, as the setup of the tables in PCL 1.124 naturally lends itself to group work. Before beginning the activity, I had students designate one group “recorder” and one “reporter.” This gets them talking and makes it difficult for each student to work through the example independently. While they worked, I walked around and reminded quiet groups to work together, clarified that they only needed to submit the form once per group, etc.

2) Come with flexible plans. In classes like this, I usually plan more activities than I think there will be time for. While it may seem like overkill, this has saved me more than once when classes work through an activity more quickly than I expect. My backup plan was to have them work together to find a “better” article than the one they were assigned if time allowed. As it turned out, the first activity took so long that I had to cut some of the debrief time. I was ready for this possibility, and Grace and I chatted after the first class to come up with strategies for time management in the following classes.

3) Outline the most important points you want to debrief. This is something I continue to find challenging. You never know if students are going to report out all the salient points you want to cover, or if you’re going to need to guide them there. If I’m not careful, I find myself going off topic during discussions and debrief sessions. Sometimes writing things on the board can help with this, but I find that providing students with a structured way of reporting back helps too. If I provide myself with an outline of the essential points I want to hit, I am more likely to facilitate a focused discussion.

4) Assess! And share that info with faculty. I love using Google Forms for these kinds of activities, because I can watch groups’ answers roll in in real time on my iPad, and I can easily share their work with faculty afterwards. Faculty often overestimate students’ evaluation skills, so I like being able to show them exactly where their students are at. This information also helps me plan future sessions and refine my approaches and activity materials.

What are your strategies for leading active learning sessions?

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