The time for a traditional classroom setting where an instructor disseminates knowledge standing at a podium in front of a class is gone. In that setting students arrive to class unprepared, they passively listen, frantically take notes, watch the clock tick, sometimes doze off, and leave the lecture to read and memorize their notes as their exam approaches. The same pattern repeats itself for each subsequent lecture. So what is the problem with this classroom approach? In my opinion: absolutely everything.

I find when students come prepared to class and are engaged in the conversation with both the instructor and fellow classmates, the best learning takes place. This type of approach is called Active Learning. In my classroom, I have students come prepared to class to participate individually or in a small group, engaging in activities such as group discussions, case studies, writing, problem solving, and presentations. This method promotes analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application of the course content and enhances their communication skills and learning. I teach class sizes ranging from 17 students to 130 students, and have found great success with this approach in both settings.

How can faculty implement an active learning environment into their course? I will discuss how pre-class preparation and in-class participation can improve student learning.

In order for an active learning environment to be successful, the students must come prepared to class. I have students complete a reading assignment, take their own notes, and complete an online homework assignment, all due before 11:59 PM the night before class. I find that giving students a solid deadline for completing their pre- class assignments ensures students have managed their time to prepare and get some rest before my 8:00 am class. So how do you know students have prepared to contribute in the classroom discussion? I use a number of strategies including iClickers, grading rubrics, and oral exams in the class to assess student learning.

Each day I start out with a brief lecture announcement to make sure the students know what pre-class work is required for the next class time. I immediately begin the class with iClicker questions to assess how each individual student has prepared for class. iClickers engage all students by asking them to respond to questions about the course content and allow assessment of knowledge by drawing on the pre-class reading and homework assignments. I receive immediate feedback about student comprehension based on watching the percentage of correct responses from the students. If the majority of students answer correctly, I show the correct answer and move on to other questions. However, if student comprehension is low, then instead of explaining the answer, I have students work in their pre- assigned groups to discuss the question. That time to discuss the question can range from a minute or longer depending on the complexity of the question being asked. I then stop the discussion and have the students respond individually again to the same iClicker question. If the comprehension is still low, I will discuss the topic in more detail. One class period students responded to a multiple choice question and the response rate was about 25% for each of the possible answers. After group discussion, the response rate to the correct answer was 92%. iClicker grading is based on participation and correct answers to content questions. Students receive immediate feedback and from my viewpoint, it is amazing to watch the learning and comprehension taking place.

I also infuse group discussions on questions and case studies followed by asking individuals to verbally discuss their answers. I will ask questions to one group or randomly walk around asking different students to answer the initial question or follow up questions that I pose. I ask that students speak loud and clearly so that everyone in the classroom can hear and learn from the conversation.

This really improves student communication skills and challenges their ability to critically think and connect topics. I also use grading rubrics to have students assess their individual and group work. Grading rubrics help instructors assess student engagement, help students understand expectations and identify learning outcomes, and definitely make grading easier and faster. Students oftentimes think they are performing at higher levels of learning than they actually are. In combination with the iClicker participation and content grades and the self-assessment rubrics, faculty can guide the students’ perception of performance by showing them actual performance data to support their self-assessment.

After each major lecture exam I reassign the groups based on upon overall course grades to ensure each group has a combination of academically strong to weaker students. Group diversity facilitates collaborative peer learning. Stronger students become teachers and weaker students get exposed to different learning styles and strategies. All students gain confidence and improve their learning as they feel comfortable and supported by their peers.

As a culmination to a rigorous semester of learning, I give an oral final exam. Most students take finals and never get any feedback on their semester of learning. I begin my final exam with an individual written component. Then students are asked to get together with their groups and discuss questions or work through case studies on selected topics. Depending on the size of the classroom, individual students or groups are verbally asked questions. Again, I ask that students communicate clearly so that all students are part of the conversation. Students are asked to assess themselves and their group using a grading rubric. Students leave the final excited and invigorated by the experience. I have found an oral final exam has been a great learning assessment opportunity, a chance for the students to connect all of the topics covered over the semester, and a celebration of a semester of rigorous work by the students.


Clark Jones

This article was written by Clark Jones, Department of Biology for the Spring 2016 Issue of Insights.