Originally published in “Notes of Excellence” newsletter, issue 013 – April 2014.
Jason Kinser is an Associate Professor of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology in the School for Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences, whose current research interest centers around pulse image processing. He is a member of the faculty cohort piloting Mason’s new Active Learning with Technology (ALT) Classroom.
What is the most innovative thing you do with your students and/or your classes? Why do you think it is effective?
The Physics 160+ course provides two innovations that are unique to this course. The first innovation incorporates into the active learning environment a set of interactive physics simulations that pose strenuous problems that require multiple steps to reach the final goal. These problems are difficult for individuals to solve in the allotted time and therefore encourage teamwork to produce an effective solution. Most of the simulations pit the student teams against the computer, but a few are competitive amongst the different teams, adding a bit of fun to the arduous task. The second innovation is the use of mobile technologies in the laboratory settings.
The simulations are effective because they add the element of goal-driven fun into the task of solving the problem. Students enjoy a small reward such as a good “game score” after solving the set of physics problems. The use of mobile technologies tends to open the doors for spontaneous innovations from the students. They are more connected to their smartphones and tablets than expensive lab equipment and can concentrate more on the physics concepts than trying to get unfamiliar equipment to work. Once students see that their mobile technologies are very capable of collecting different types of data, they often suggest other experiments that they could do on their own and at home.
What do you do that creates a strong learning environment for your students?
Fostering student involvement and investigation deeply embeds knowledge and thinking skills. Once the class gets started, we encourage the students to get out of their chairs and discuss their physics problems with other students. This is an effective tool for getting students to think outside of the norms and search for solutions through their own thinking processes as well as using those from several others. Out of this mild chaos, students begin to take on teaching roles, which reinforce their learning. Another effective aspect of this environment is that students can discuss their thoughts about a problem while they are still working through it. This is far more effective than completing a problem on a homework assignment, turning it in, and then learning later if it was correct or not.
What’s one tip that you would offer to faculty new to teaching at Mason?
Faculty who are planning on incorporating active learning in their classrooms should first visit ongoing active classrooms. The preparation for an active learning class is quite different than a lecture course. Active learning does require a tremendous amount of preparation for the first implementation. Faculty should also plan on managing a class without lectures. Instead, they can develop pathways of discovery for the students to follow. Since this is different than the experiences most faculty had when they were students, a visit to an ongoing class can be very enlightening.
What’s the most challenging thing for you in your teaching, and how do you address this challenge?
The biggest challenge was learning how to prepare for the course. Creating student activities seems easy at first, but there always seem to be unforeseen challenges once the students begin working on their tasks. The second challenge is managing the large class. It is important to answer questions quickly, so that students remain engaged and on-task. There are eight tables with a total of 72 seats, and when the students are all working, it becomes quite difficult to answer all of their questions in a timely fashion. This problem is efficaciously addressed by employing two Learning Assistants that also tend to student questions as they arise.