“I want to get my students more engaged and less passive in class, but I’m not sure how to do that in a way that is productive.”
That’s a teaching issue I hear from faculty and teaching assistants who want to incorporate more active learning in their class sessions but aren’t sure about best practices for in-class student activities.
I discussed some general practices for student engagement in another post. In this post I’ll provide more specifics about using partner and small group in-class activities.
Let’s make it clear that active student learning in class isn’t just a way to break up class by putting students in small groups for a few minutes. Designing active activities in college classes is a powerful learning strategy.
Also, including active student learning doesn’t mean that you have to implement the flipped classroom, as the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont is doing – eliminating all lectures and having students watch videos on their own and use all class time for students to work in small groups.
Here are some recommendations for designing active learning for your classes:
#1 – Determine the objective for the activity
Sometimes in developing a student activity, the teacher can be focusing on breaking out of the lecture mode but without a clear objective for the activity beyond having the students talking with each other.
You can use a partner or small group activity as a way of students preparing for a class discussion.
In that case, you need to provide directions about what you want them to accomplish.
“Identify what you think were the three biggest insights from the assigned chapter.”
”Having read about the lab you will be doing today, what questions do you have?”
The students may have brought to class a homework assignment that they will be turning in. You can use a partner or small group activity to have them review each other’s homework.
#2 – Determine any product of the activity
Having a required result/product can help students stay more focused on the assigned task.
If the students are discussing key insights from the readings, the result can be that each group will have to share their insights in 30 seconds. You also can require that they turn in their notes, which you will count toward a class participation grade.
# 3 – Sell the value of the activity
Sometimes students consider the only time learning can occur is when the instructor is talking. You may need to help them realize what they are accomplishing in small groups or in conversations with a partner.
You may need to talk with them before the activity about why you are using this activity or talk about why you are getting them involved in activities during class.
From what students tell me (or say in the course evaluations) about student activities in class:
- Students are better prepared for class if they know that they may have to talk with classmates about an assigned reading.
- By talking with a partner or in a small group, they become more confident about speaking in a whole-class discussion.
- Some students say their confidence is increased as they are able to explain things to their classmates.
- The activities help them get to know their classmates and they enjoy class more – and are more likely to come to class.
#4 – Give specific directions
Before the students move into the activity, give specific directions. For example:
“In just a few minutes, I’m going to put you in small groups. Here’s what I want you to accomplish. First, each group member should talk briefly about what you consider to be one of the most important concepts from the homework reading. Every group member must raise one concept. So if someone in your group already talks about the concept you were planning to raise, you must select another concept. Next, compile a list of what your group considers to be the three biggest concepts. Then, determine who is going to explain each concept and why your group considers it to be very important. Each group will have 60 seconds to share.”
Depending on the complexity of the assignment, you can give oral directions only or give the oral directions and then have a slide on the screen or a list on the board. By having written directions, students can refer back to what they are assigned to complete.
#5 – Determine the amount of time needed
In giving the directions, be sure to include how much time the students will have in talking with the partner or group. Consider your objective and the result.
If you want the group to complete something to turn in, that will require more time than the group presenting their results orally.
#6 – Decide about grouping
The quickest approach is to have students turn to a classmate they are sitting next to.
“For this activity, you need to talk with a classmate. Talk with someone sitting near you. In some cases, you may have a team of three rather than two.”
Sometimes you want students to be working with different classmates. In that case, you may determine partners or groups before class and announce those – reading out the groups or having a list on a slide.
Another approach is to determine how many students you want in the group (let’s say five) and then have the class number off. If you have 30 in the class, the students would number off one to six, with a result of six groups of five. Then ask for the ones to raise their hands, the twos and so forth, so the students could see who their team members are.
In that case, you need to allocate time for the students to move to get into their groups and determine if they should take their laptops, backpacks and purses to their new seating arrangement or if they will return to their original seating later in class.
#7 – Manage the group/partner process
You’ve developed an activity that will get the students engaged on an important objective for that day’s class. You’ve determined the outcome you want, the directions, the groups, and the amount of time required.
A key part of the success of the activity is based on what you do after making the announcement of the assignment.
Move around the classroom to make sure everyone has gotten with a partner or group. Sometimes a student sitting on the back row or far edge of class can hang back. You may need to move them into a group.
If you’ve given the groups five minutes for a task, that doesn’t mean that you have five minutes to check your phone.
Sometimes a group will raise a hand because they have a question. Go answer their question. By circulating around the room, you also can make sure every group is on task. You’ll note if students are wrapping up sooner than you had expected or need more time, and you can make that announcement to the class.“Looks like some groups could use more time. Let’s take two more minutes.”
You also can stop and sit in on a group’s discussion. Do that for several groups if there’s time. That way, you can see what the students’ response to the assignment is. You also will be able to call on specific students during the debriefing activity to make sure their comments are shared.
#8 – Follow up on the partner/group activity
I’ve observed in a class where a teaching assistant included a partner activity at the start of class, but when the students had completed the partner activity, the TA began his lecture. He did not include any reference to or inclusion of the activity.
It was almost as if he’d been told to include a student activity, and he mentally checked off that box when the students completed talking to their classmates.
If you don’t follow up on the activity, many of the students will be left wondering, “Why did we do that activity?”
The next time you want the students to work with a partner or group, they may be less enthusiastic (or on task) if they don’t see how the activity advances their learning for the class.
#9 – Be ready to make adjustments
Sometimes when you develop an activity, it doesn’t go as you had planned.
You were going to put students into teams to look at specific websites and report back to the class – and the internet is running very slowly. Do you abandon the activity or give the students an additional question or two to talk about as they wait for the websites to load?
You are asking students to respond to a homework assignment, and it quickly becomes clear to you that almost no one has done the assignment. That could happen the first time you try a small group activity. To try and avoid that, when you give the homework reading assignment, tell them that they will be doing an in-class activity based on the reading.
If it does happen, you could ask each student to write (anonymously) why they didn’t complete the reading. That can be revealing – “The textbook is $160 and I just can’t afford it.” “I ordered the book online and the book hasn’t arrived yet.” “I did try reading the chapter but was totally confused.”
When something unexpected happens, the key is to remain calm and move forward with that day’s class. Don’t lose your cool, and don’t decide based on a glitch in that day’s activity that you won’t try active learning again.
#10 – Remember that active learning improves with practice
That’s true for you as the instructor and for the students.
Once you begin including active learning activities in class, you’ll be more attuned to how you can use activities in future classes. You’ll get better at giving directions and determining how much time to allocate.
Your students will be get better, too. Once they know that active learning is going to be part of your class, they will be better prepared for class and will begin approaching readings and other homework assignments from a different perspective, knowing that they will be acting on the homework in class.