Category Archives: Active Learning

Can we take active learning too far?

The first post of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) new series “featuring articles by skeptical teachers exploring critical thinking in the classroom, using the investigation of the paranormal, fringe science, and pseudoscience to teach methods of science and reason” is about hoaxes in the classroom. Bob Blaskiewicz teaches writing skills by having students analyze conspiracy theories.

I’ve been teaching conspiracy theories for several years, and my final project usually has students create a new conspiracy theory that somehow draws on existing ones. By the time my students have finished the class, they have encountered a conspiracy theory, broken it down into its component parts, researched/fact-checked each element, analyzed the conspiracy, and written an argumentative paper about the rhetorical and narrative elements of the conspiracy theory that make it memorable and “culturally transmissible,” as it were. They then create their own conspiracy theory and write a paper illustrating how what they have learned in the class has influenced their own conspiracy theory.

This is an awesome example of student engagement that incorporates active learning and motivational strategies. The only thing more fun than showing an existing conspiracy theory false is to make up your own conspiracy theory.  Another instructor has used a similar approach for his history class, “Lying about the Past”.  Professor T. Mills Kelly tells his students that in the course “we’ll be focusing our attention on the lies told about what happened—lies told with the specific intention of deceiving others (most typically known as historical hoaxes).” Very similar approaches, however Blaskiewicz claims Kelly has taken the active learning too far when the class doesn’t just stop with examining hoaxes but goes on to “make up our own hoaxes and turn them loose on the Internet to see if we can fool anyone”.

Why is this going too far? Blaskiewcz explains,

We do not release our conspiracy theories onto the public because they are likely to be believed by someone. An important theme of the course is that conspiracy theories are not good things, that they are time sinks for people who would otherwise want to participate in American political life in a meaningful way, and that they perpetuate ignorance, misinformation, and hate (often targeting scapegoats). They are, to use Chip Berlet’s phrase, toxic to democracy.

Even Kelly describes this behaviour as “unthinkable”, but does it anyway. Why?  He offers these reasons,

I have two answers to this question, both of which I hope will convince you that I’m onto something. The first answer is that by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we are much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past. That alone ought to be enough of a reason to teach this course. But my second reason is that I believe that the study of history ought to be fun and that too often historians (I include myself in this category) take an overly stuffy approach to the past. Maybe it’s our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we’re afraid that if we get too playful with our field we won’t be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us.

Blaskiewcz is not satisfied with these reasons as creating a hoax is not required to accomplish the goal of learning about hoaxes or making history fun. Furthermore, Blaskiewcz argues that purposefully misleading people violates ethical standards.

I have to agree with Blaskiewcz. This blog is all about being creative and engaging students, but we also have ethical obligations. Kelly seems to encounter these ethical violations as he writes his syllabus when he explains the backlash from the previous class, states which topics are off limits, advises students to keep course activities secret, and discusses academic honesty, however he ignores these red flags. Encouraging students to lie to people should not be encourage by professors that should know better.

What do you think? Is Kelly a history professor extraordinaire or has he crossed an ethical line?


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Fun with Microbes – Germ Enlarger

I remember watching “The Muppets” as a child. It was one of the few shows we watched as a family. I remember loving Beeker, but I don’t remember this particular segment.  I remember Jim Henson’s death being part of my “Principles of Disease” final exam, but I don’t remember the particular question.

Today marks 22 years since Henson’s death. As I watch this segment again, I find the irony of Henson dying from a streptococci infection tragic. It wasn’t “streptococcus yuckotheorum” that killed Henson, but Streptococcus pyogenes.

This short clip touches on several themes in my microbiology course, including

  • definition of “germs”
  • use of a microscope
  • care of the microscope (“comes out of your pay, Beeker!”)
  • lab safety (“Notice how easy it is now for Beeker to study that germ…and vice versa”)
  • cellular morphology
  • contagious disease

This clip could be used as a way to grab a student’s attention at the beginning of class. By linking the clip to Henson’s death, we can then talk about Streptococcus pyogenes. Henson’s death can be used as a case study.

This video also highlights the conflict of making microbiology “fun” and the cruel reality that microbes kill people. The video is clearly fun, but Henson’s death is tragic. I often tell my nursing students that I’m sick and twisted because I’m more interested in how microbes kill people rather than how to make them better. It’s not entirely true because learning how to prevent infection ultimately prevents tragedy. This juxtaposition between the humour of “The Muppets” and the sad reality of Henson’s death might serve very well as a reminder that although I try to make class fun, the consequences can be very tragic.

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Making a Positive First Impression

Each culture celebrates the New Year at different times. For teachers, the New Year starts in September.

As a student, September meant new things: clothes, books, shoes. I remember wondering who would be in my class and what my teacher would be like. Would I be able to handle the academic challenges of the new grade? University brought the excitement of a new town, roomates and adventure. There was an excitement of adventure but also a little bit of fear of the unknown.

As a teacher, September isn’t much different, except I wonder what my students will think of me as their teacher. Will I make a positive first impression and convey the excitement and enthusiasm I have for my subject? Will they see me as a friend or foe?
Joyce  Povlacs compiled 101 suggestions to make the transition from summer to school a little easier.  Joyce writes,

The rationale for these methods is based on the following needs:

1) to help students make the transition from high school and summer activities to learning in college;
2) to direct students’ attention to the immediate situation for learning – the hour in the classroom;
3) to spark intellectual curiosity – to challenge students;
4) to support beginners and neophytes in the process of learning in the discipline;
5) to encourage the students’ active involvement in learning; and
6) to build a sense of community in the classroom.

Some of the suggestions are contradictory, so there is no way to incorporate all of these suggestions into the first 3 weeks, but there is certainly lots of ideas to choose from. For each need, I’ve picked the suggestion that most excites me and one that most scares me.

1. Helping Students Make Transitions

My favourite here is #8, “Give a learning style inventory to help students find out about themselves.” From my experience as a student, learning about how I learn was so empowering to me. I could see why I clashed with some teachers and loved others, and why some subjects were harder than others. A learning style inventory gave me a place to start in finding the tools I needed to learn better. I could stop being at the mercy of the teacher and take charge of my own learning.

“Seek out a different student each day and get to know something about him or her.” (#19) fills me with fear. I’m an introvert. I don’t particularly like seeking out people. Nevertheless, I can see this activity being very good to build a relationship between me and my students. Furthermore, one student at a time isn’t all that bad and can make learning their names a little easier. This is definitely a suggestion I need to think more about. One question I have is what do I do with the information I learn about the student? This could motivate me if I could see a strong purpose in the activity that overrides my strong desire to be by myself.

2. Directing Student’s Attention

I like #26 the best: “26. Start the lecture with a puzzle, question, paradox, picture, or cartoon on slide or transparency to focus on the day’s topic”. There is so many neat things in microbiology, it would not be hard to find something to captivate a student’s attention. Microbiology textbooks often use this approach to draw students into the chapter.

I originally thought #28, “Have students write down what they think the important issues or key points of the day’s lecture will be.” would be a good idea until I thought more about the logistics of this. I thought this would be a great way to motivate students to come to class prepared, but what if they don’t? Sometimes the demands of the program and life gets in the way and homework just doesn’t get done.  I think this would put student’s on the spot and I could see a bunch of blank stares, shrugs, and “I have no idea” responses. This make both the students and myself uncomfortable.

3. Challenging Students

I think #30, “Have students write out their expectations for the course and their own goals for learning.”, works really well with the learning style inventory and is a very strong benefit to students.

I don’t see how #35, “Share your philosophy of teaching with your students.”, #39, “Tell about your current research interest
and how you got there from your own beginnings in the discipline.”, and #47, “Let your students see the enthusiasm you have for your subject and your love of learning.”, challenge students unless they want to be like me. I’ll direct them to this blog if they are interested in that sort of information about me.

4. Providing Support

This section contains several suggestions I think are really great and also several that I think just bomb for adult education. One that I think is really great is #56, “Use non-graded feedback to let students know how they are doing: post answers to ungraded quizzes and problems sets, exercises in class, oral feedback.” I use Moodle to supplement class materials, and Moodle is just perfect for this. It does take a lot time to establish these types of resources, but the good news is that it only needs to be done once. The material can be reused for every class since the material is there solely for student benefit. If students want to copy each other, then that would be their loss.

“Collect students’ current telephone numbers and addresses and let them know that you may need to reach them.” (#50). In a word, “no”. I could just imagine the privacy laws that are being violated by doing this and that is not my job. I view students as adults, and if they decide not to attend class, then that is their decision to make. If they offer an explanation, then I will surely listen and do my best to offer support, but I’m not prying into their personal business outside of class.

5. Encouraging Active Learning

Active learning is a whole topic by itself, but this section does provide lots of suggestions. One that I hadn’t considered before is #81, “Place a suggestion box in the rear of the room and encourage students make written comments every time the class meets”. I think this suggestion could easily be combined with #87, “Have students write questions on index cards to be collected and answered the next class period”.  This appeals to my introverted nature. Some students just want to be anonymous and I think a box to make suggestions or ask questions, would appeal a lot to inverts. I also like that everyone benefits from the answers to the questions.

I don’t think there is anything in this section that would not use. The hard part would be to find just the right opportunity to include the suggestion.

6. Building Community

I have observed that students do best when they form study groups, so #96, “Arrange helping trios of students to assist each other in learning and growing.”, appeals to me most. I still have questions about how to arrange these groups, which I hope to explore further in this blog.

I suck at learning names (#92). I know the benefits, but my brain is just not wired that way and it takes a lot of effort for me. I feel that effort could be better spent on other activities rather than torturing myself. My professors never learned my name and I don’t feel these altered by learning experience in the slightest. Some students do stick in my mind for various reasons. I do try, but I don’t promise because I think it is worse to learn names and not remember, than not learn them at all.

So which suggestions are you going to incorporate into your classroom in the new year?

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Countering Student Opposition to Active Learning

Richard Felder uses active learning techniques when teaching chemical engineering students at North Carolina State University.

I’m always open to advice from the trenches so I really appreciated his “Sermons for Grumpy Campers” about how to counter student opposition to active learning. He presents his advice as “mini-sermons”. The first two are about group work, which really interested me. As a student, I hated group work. As a instructor, I’m contemplating how to incorporate group work into the classroom. Felder addressed both of my concerns by stating that group work is the way the world works and it is best for the student to learn how to cope now. Good point.

When you use a proven teaching method that makes students uncomfortable, it’s important to let them know why you’re doing it. If you can convince them that it’s not for your own selfish or lazy purposes but to try to improve their learning and grades, they tend to ramp down their resistance long enough to see the benefits for themselves.

It would be much easier for me to stand up at the front of the room and talk about a subject I know really well. I’m finding incorporating active learning strategies into class time much more challenging. I have to find the right balance between lecture and active learning, I have to select a strategy that I think will be effective, and I have to motivate students to venture outside of the their comfort zone. So why would I want to make more work for myself? Simply, what is the point of teaching if you are using ineffective techniques? Doing the job well means I have to step outside my comfort zone too.

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How to Promote Active Learning within the Classroom

We are not about to propose that you throw out lecturing and make every class you teach a total active learning extravaganza. You know more than most of your students do about your subject, and you need to spend part of your class time teaching them what you know – explaining, clarifying, demonstrating, modeling, etc. What we are suggesting is to avoid making lecturing the only thing you do.

(Felder and Brent, 2009)

As I mentioned in the previous post, active learning makes sense. Students cannot learn material passively, so the transition from traditional lecture format to active learning is intuitive. What teacher doesn’t want their students to learn better? Thus, I was all gung ho about the concept when I first discovered it. I developed several learning activities that I thought I could have the students do during lecture time instead of me talking.  My idea was that students would read the material before class and then we would spend class time learning. The complete opposite of the traditional model of the material being presented during class time and students learning the material outside of class. I turned my lecture into an “active learning extravaganza”.



Students did not come to class prepared or they didn’t understand what they read. I still had to spend time explaining the material. I learned that I couldn’t replace lecturing completely with active learning activities. I wish I had read Felder and Brent’s paper beforehand. My mistake was making the exercises too long. Felder and Brent recommend no longer than 3 minutes.

A much better approach is to intermingle lecture with active learning activities. During the lecture portion, I can focus on more common mistakes or the more difficult concepts, with the rest of the material still in the course handout. The next step is to look at the course material and identify which concepts need lecturing and then how to incorporate a brief active learning activity after the lecture portion.

I still need to refine the balance between course material and learning. I suppose that job will never be done, but shouldn’t prevent us from trying.

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What is Active Learning?

When I went to school, class looked very similar to this one from 1943. The professor was at the front of the room and the students were sitting in rows desperately trying to record every thing that was said.

Instructor Lecturing

These days, the goal is to have students participate in active rather than this kind of passive learning.

What is active learning?

Defining “active learning” is a bit problematic. The term means different thing to different people, while for some the very concept is redundant since it is impossible to learn anything passively.

according to the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota. They go on to define active learning as

an approach to instruction in which students engage the material they study through reading, writing, talking, listening, and reflecting. Active learning stands in contrast to “standard” modes of instruction in which teachers do most of the talking and students are passive.

The Texas A&M HSC College of Medicine states

active learning occurs when students are participating in the learning process both inside and outside the classroom, by organizing information, manipulating materials, and/or constructing new knowledge.

And in an introduction to active learning, Felder and Brent (2009) define active learning as

anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes.

So going back to the statement from the University of Minnosota, I agree with the observation that active learning is redundant in that is impossible to learn without interacting with the material, however I’m not seeing the problem in defining the term active learning. Three different sources all describe active learning as “doing” rather than “listening”.  The “doing” is having students interact with the material. The big difference between then and now is that in the good ol’days, this interaction was outside of the classroom. The professor would talk, the student would listen and then learn the material outside of class. There was little instruction on how to learn so only those that were motivated to learn the material on their own would succeed. University was a means of selecting the cream of independent learners, and then the world changed.

Our highly technical society requires people to be better educated. A university degree became a requirement for employment rather than a desirable element. The mission statement at my college is to “promote the success of every student.” Obviously then, leaving students to engage the course material on their own isn’t going to fly. Furthermore, the college aims to “provide access to lifelong learning and facilitate the achievement of personal and educational goals.” Inherent in this statement is that the instructors need to teach students how to learn as much as the knowledge base of a particular discipline. Therefore, active learning needs to move from outside the classroom where only the most motivated students succeed to inside the classroom where all students have the potential for success. The topic of the next post will be “How to Promote Active Learning within the Classroom”.

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To Blog or Not to Blog

Cartoon from Cox & Forkum

photo courtesy of Cox & Forkum

This blog started as a course requirement for PIDP 3250 Instructional Strategies which is part of the Provincial Instructor Diploma Program offered by Vancouver Community College, so I thought the first post should be dedicated to the use of blogs as an instructional strategy.

To blog or not to blog?

A blog allows a student to reflect on the course material by writing a blog post. A blog post can be anything from the student’s feelings about a topic to a more scholarly essay. The blog allows a student to relate to the course material in a way that makes sense to them, and by placing the course material within a framework of their previous experiences be more motivated to learn and retain the new knowledge presented in the course.  The blog is an active learning activity where the student takes charge of the course material and puts his/her spin on it. The instructor can provide guidelines for what to include in the blog, but shouldn’t micromanage the task. Let the student use the blog to explore. I found this “Guide to Blogging” by Educause, a really helpful resource that explains what blogs are and provides some advice on how to use blogging within a course.

I found this assignment very intimidating at first. Cox & Forkum’s cartoon really speaks to me because I’m such a perfectionist. I want each blog post to be a literary work of art representing deep thoughts and outstanding insight as well as being free of all spelling and grammar mistakes. As if that is going to happen. I would be constantly asking myself “to blog or not to blog” and answering with “not to blog, because it’s not perfect”. I’d have whole bunch of drafts and no posts. Lucky for me, my instructor isn’t expecting perfection either. The blog can evolve and grow as much as I want. So, I have given myself permission to make mistakes as long as I write something, anything. I have a list of topics I must cover, but how I cover them is up to me. These topics are going to be my initial categories and I’ll expand the categories as I go. My goal is one post a day.

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