Additional Resources for Teaching in Mason’s Active Learning Classrooms

Fourteen Mason faculty from a range of disciplines began teaching in our first Active Learning with Technology (ALT) classroom in Exploratory Hall in Fall 2013. These are some of the strategies and observations that they want to share with faculty who teach in our active learning classrooms.

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Student Expectations for the Learning Space

As discussed on our Active Learning page, setting and managing student expectations from the start of the semester is crucial for their success and the success of your course.

To help students understand and work in the active learning classrooms, communicate with them in advance of the semester about what the classroom is like and how you’ll use it to enhance their learning. Provide a welcome letter or video that previews the room, its key features, and your reasons and approaches for teaching in it.

Get students up and moving around the room from the first day. For rooms with moveable furniture, let students experience a few of the seating configurations that you’re likely to use early on. Consider communicating why you’ve used a particular seating arrangement, or ask students to make connections between the space/room configuration and the activities or approaches to learning.

Do low-stakes work with the technology and have students work on the white boards early in the semester—during the first day and week—so that they become comfortable with the resources in the room and willing to experiment with them.

Some students will resist publicly solving problems—and making mistakes— especially on the white boards. Explicitly discuss this concern, and assure your students that you will all make mistakes and that it’s part of the nature of the course. Do low-stakes activities early and often, and don’t grade process or board work for correctness. Provide some scenarios or problems in which most or all students are likely to make mistakes, and build in a component that helps them see how they learned from those errors. Model expected behavior and attitudes for your students: when something doesn’t go as you planned (because not everything will!), let your students see you handle the situation with humor or ease and learn from it.

Lesson Design/Course Prep

You can’t do everything. Things will take longer than similar lessons or activities in a regular classroom, and some faculty found that they had to reduce content or the number of assignments throughout the semester. Since you’ll do less, strive get the most possible from everything that you design. Be clear about what you want to accomplish for any activity, exercise, or assignment, and focus in on those goals while planning. Be wary of fun activities or other course elements that don’t have maximum impact for student achievement of learning goals.

The technology in these classrooms is a great tool to help your students meet the learning goals and objectives, but it shouldn’t drive your pedagogy. It’s okay to not always use all of the technology or to adopt some of it over time.

Meticulous, detailed activity design and carefully written directions that include learning objectives or connections to other elements of the course are a must.

The classroom environment will be chaotic sometimes, and students are reliant on each other when faculty and teaching assistants are working with other groups. So prepare carefully written instructions that articulate the process in brief but detailed, finely grained steps; stop when needed to help students make sense of the chaos and make connections back to the activity learning objectives. You can also start an activity with a conceptual question that gets student thinking and making connections.

Class activities simultaneously require careful pre-planning and structure and room for change and flexibility. Striking this balance is tricky—be patient with yourself and your students.

Student accountability is essential. When writing instructions, be more explicit about expectations for results and write-ups of group work. Consider asking groups to assign roles to individual students, or devise other processes for holding students accountable for active participation. Use online spaces for public (course) display of notes, processes, and problem-solving.

The pacing of activities and class sessions requires careful pre-planning. Not all groups or students will work at the same pace, so always have something extra planned. This can range from providing multiple, increasingly difficult problems; providing reflection or follow-up activities as groups finish; letting early completers work together on their own projects; or asking early completers to use a structured process or provided questions/techniques to assist other groups.

It can also be difficult for students to sustain energy and mental intensity throughout the class period. Plan accordingly, with a mix of activities and intensity levels. Start or end activities with individual thinking or reflection. When energy lags, get students out of their seats, working with other groups or on the whiteboards, or have a back-up plan that allows you to shift gears as needed.

Plan to teach at the tables/to groups. The design of the active learning classrooms doesn’t facilitate full class instruction, and early adopters of these rooms found that only minimal full class instruction was effective. Instead, teach to individual groups or (in the ALT classroom) at the tables. Circulate to provide instruction; use student work as models and instruction within a group or table; (in the ALT classroom) turn your microphone when you want to provide the opportunity for students throughout the class to listen in as you’re working with other groups.

You’ll also need to design new ways to provide the reinforcements, reiterations and connections to earlier lessons or activities that faculty often provide orally.

Class & Classroom Dynamics

Connecting with students. Faculty who moved from a lecture class to an active learning class experienced increased connection and rapport with students, but they still noted that students connected most with each other, at their tables. Faculty who moved from a non-lecture environment to the ALT classroom, particularly those who also increased their course size or co-taught, reported less connection and rapport with their students. Since faculty-student connection can increase learning motivation and help faculty assess the learning needs and progress of individual students, this is something to consider and plan for in advance. Strategies used include requiring name tags and learning students names early, conducting student skills and knowledge inventories, reading students learning logs or reflections, and increased office hours. Some faculty who co-taught took lead responsibility for a sub-set of groups or tables for specific projects or modules.

Many faculty also missed full class discussions and a sense of class, rather than table or group, community and wish they had anticipated this in advance to manage their own expectations.

Group or table dynamics can have a big impact on the learning and attitude of students in these classrooms given the collaborative nature of the learning environment. Some faculty were surprised by the effect that cliques or table identity had on the student’s receptiveness to the class. They found that grouping students intentionally and strategically, intentionally mixing up groups for an individual activity, and changing groups a few times throughout the semester helped mitigate these effects.

Don’t let students self-select groups or tables. Instead, group students by interest area, type of project or topics on which they are working, or by ability: mix A, C and F students together in groups; mix majors and non-majors together; identify students who are strong leaders or mentors during the first several weeks of the semester and disperse them throughout groups or tables for the rest of the semester.

In the ALT classroom, designing partial (rather than full) table activities or dividing students into two or three sub-groups at each table is most effective. In other active learning classroom spaces, groups of three to five students will work best for most activities or projects.