One of the tenets of American education is that students learn and retain information and skills better if they are actively involved in the learning process. Explain to your students that you expect them to prepare for class, think carefully about course content, take intellectual risks, and participate in class discussion. It is their responsibility to wrestle with the issues and concepts explored in the course; it is your responsibility to support their active involvement with the subject matter. You do this not so much by providing answers as by posing excellent questions.

A substantial literature exists on how students learn and how best to engage them in the learning process. Here are a few tips; many more are available in the Center for Teaching library or on the OTLT website.

Lecturing 

  • If you lecture, remember that most people actively listen for about 20 minutes. Plan your session accordingly with a break for small-group work, Q&A, or other active learning before resuming the lecture.

  • Try to leave the lectern now and then. Walking “into the crowd” will help you make eye contact with students and keep them alert and curious about what you might do next.

  • Vary the tone and rhythm of your voice. Use body language effectively

  • Define new vocabulary several times. Avoid jargon.

  • Refer to and expand upon material presented in the textbook—don’t repeat it.

  • Use technology—PowerPoint, student response systems (“clickers”), lecture capture, digital media, tablet PCs, etc.—effectively.

  • Speak clearly and at a moderate pace.

  • Summarize major points.

Active Learning

Active learning is characterized by these qualities:

  • usually involves students doing more than listening;

  • entails less emphasis on transmitting information and more on developing students’ learning and discipline-based skills;

  • engages students in higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation;

  • encourages students to explore their own attitudes and values; and

  • does not mean you must abandon the lecture format, which is one of several effective ways to convey information.

Active Learning Techniques
  • Small-group activities encourage many more students to speak in class. It’s harder to be a passive learner in a group of three than in a group of thirty. Small-group activities can be done even in classes of 500 students. All it takes is about five minutes and a well-thought-out question or task for groups to work on.

  • Effective use of teaching technology can present visual representations via PowerPoint, doc cams, videos, and tablet PCs. OTLT staff can help you incorporate technology in ways that enhance learning and recall of course content and skills.

  • Minute papers are easy, fun, and adaptable to many purposes. The goal of this exercise— which can take no more than a minute—is to gather feedback. Minute papers can help you discover what did or did not work well, as well as provide ideas about how to teach in new ways. They can be used in any size class

If you are trying to gather general information about what interests or confuses the students or what they think of your teaching, the feedback should be anonymous. Occasionally, you may want to just use the minute paper as a quiz; in that case, of course, names are necessary. Students write for a brief time in response to a focused question from the instructor.

Here are a few examples of questions:

  • Write the most important point you’ve learned in today’s class (or this week’s readings, this unit, etc.).

  • Did anything confuse you during today’s discussion? If so, write it as a question or two.

  • What has been the most effective teaching technique used during this unit?

You can do this exercise at any point during the class session, although most instructors do it at the end of a unit or the period. After you’ve looked through the responses, let students know one or two things you learned and how that information will affect the course. Students are glad to have an opportunity to express themselves in a way that has an impact on their learning in the course.

  • Surveys can be conducted several ways, including electronic student response systems (“clickers”) and minute papers, anonymous or not. Another effective way to survey students about their opinions or responses to a question is to have them line up along a continuum, discuss their choices, and then ask them to realign themselves along the continuum. If anyone has changed his or her place, ask them to explain why.

  • A combination of small-group activities and surveys works well when each group holds up a card to indicate its choice of several answer options. Groups then defend their choices and try to convince others to “join” them.

  • Allowing students to jot down a few thoughts before discussing in class can improve the depth of discussion and help those who feel shy about speaking off-the-cuff.

  • Board work, role-playing, panel discussions, case studies, posters, and projects also actively engage students by enlisting the full panoply of learning styles (visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic).

Writing

Writing demands critical thinking, organizational skills, patience, and the ability to critique others and to listen to criticism. It’s a truism—but also true—that the act of writing forces us to construct our understanding of a topic—in other words, to create as well as to convey meaning.

Writing is one of the essential skills that defines an educated individual, yet teaching writing seems to be the juggernaut of many an otherwise gifted teacher. The following ideas about teaching writing might smooth your way: 

  • Make writing a regular part of the classroom experience. One-minute papers work well. They can be anonymous or signed. You also can invite students to read aloud what they’ve written.

  • Think carefully about the purpose of the writing assignment:

    • to demonstrate learned knowledge (a quiz or test);

    • to show research abilities—analysis, synthesis, evaluation (term paper);

    • to wrestle with an idea (short essay);

    • to help students speak aloud or focus class discussion (one-minute paper);

    • to help students understand that writing improves thinking (expository writing);

    • to hone communication skills (series of drafts); or

    • to express feelings and opinions, and to reflect on what has been learned, how, and why (personal essay, reflection).

  • Design the writing assignment with explicit questions and provide clear learning objectives.

  • Invite students to reflect—in writing— on their writing process for any particular assignment and also across the arc of the semester.

Even veteran faculty members wonder how to assess written work. Instructors sometimes find assessing personal writing, such as essays or reflections, especially challenging. But simply because a written piece is personal or subjective does not mean it cannot be assessed.

A few suggestions to help make assessment of writing effective for your students and efficient for you:

  • Help students avoid the temptation to plagiarize by assigning a series of short exercises that build to the final paper or essay.

  • Provide written comments in the margins. Marginalia need not be extensive, however, and if you have many students or many short assignments, you can rely on the “check, check-minus, check-plus” technique.

  • Writing many comments such as “Good,” “Weak,” or “Confusing” probably helps the student less than fewer comments that are more specific as to why you find a sentence or paragraph good, weak, or confusing.

  • One technique works especially well to start a conversation about written work. Rather than giving students grades for their first drafts, ask them to read your comments and then respond. This assignment assures that they actually read and think about your comments. You also can have them rewrite certain sentences, paragraphs, or sections.

  • Resist rewriting your students’ work—you don’t have time and they will not learn if you do the work for them.

  • Grammatical errors should not be ignored. On the other hand, you should not serve as a copy editor for your students. Undoubtedly, they have been told about run-on sentences, “their” vs. “there,” and misspelled words many times before. What to do? 

    • Put check marks in the margins and tell students to find and correct the errors on the marked lines.

    • Mark and correct one paragraph and tell them to find identical errors and fix them in the rest of the piece.

    • Tell students they will be exchanging papers for peer review of grammar and usage. There are various software programs available to enable peer review. OTLT staff are available to consult with you about which software may be appropriate for your needs. 

    • Devote some time throughout the semester to teaching a few of the most frequent—and egregious—examples of bad grammar and usage. These exercises can be amusing, and students almost always appreciate learning or brushing up on a few basic writing skills.

    • Develop and use a rubric for grading writing. Be sure to hand it out to students and post it in your course ICON site at the same time as you give them the assignment so they know what is expected of them. Writing assessment rubrics generally cover nuts-and-bolts such as grammar and usage, but also include content, organization, critical thinking skills, and stylistic considerations. 

Service-Learning 

Today, many students come to college having already performed impressive volunteer work in their communities. They are eager to participate in volunteer and service-learning opportunities in college.

Service-learning courses provide active-learning experiences by integrating community service with academic course work. Service learning requires students to apply what they learn in class in their community service efforts and then bring their volunteer experiences to bear on their classroom learning. Instructors and students work together to establish community partnerships. Instructors must create a plan for monitoring and assessing the service aspect of the course, and possibly even engaging in community service themselves. More information about teaching service-learning courses is available on the OTLT website. 

Teaching in Laboratory or Studio Settings

Students who take lab or studio courses necessarily engage in active learning. In these types of courses, instructors and teaching assistants work with students on a more individual basis. To enhance the lab or studio experience:

  • Each session, introduce the conceptual background for their activities in the lab or studio.

  • Inform them of what they are going to do and the learning objectives for the activities.

  • Make certain you have already conducted the experiment, or, in a studio, are familiar with the materials and media being used. Point out where you had difficulties and how you resolved them.

  • As students work, circulate. Ask them what they’re doing and why and to interpret their results.

  • Ask them to link what they are doing at the moment to what has been learned in the classroom or through the textbook.

  • Invite questions.

  • Remind students about safety issues and where to find devices and individuals to help in an emergency.