Active Learning Classrooms — Guest Post by Iain Reeve

            Can a class of 48 students be engaged in active learning in a classroom setting that also advances desired learning outcomes and allows for valid assessment? Queen’s University is set to unveil three newly renovated “active learning classrooms” this Winter 2014 semester. The classrooms were funded as a pilot project investigating classroom spaces that can allow for a greater degree of engagement and higher diversity of classroom activities in a medium or large class setting. Each classroom has different elements that — for the properly inventive and motivated instructor — allow for an increased level of in-class activity and participation.

As one of the first instructors to teach in these rooms, I want to investigate whether the spaces — and my particular uses for them — are successful. This first entry will discuss my intentions and goals for the spaces, while a second entry at the end of the semester will check in and see just how successful — or not — I was in my goals.

            First, let me introduce the rooms that my class will be taught in. I will be utilizing two of the active learning rooms, an approach that will allow me to utilize the benefits of each to engage in distinct teaching methods from session to session, each week.

The first room — the flexile configuration room — has a 48 seats on wheels that can be easily configured in whatever formation the instructor desires. The room is spacious, bright, and has white board space across the entirety of three walls. This space will be used for the first session of each week and the details can be seen here: http://queensu.ca/activelearningspaces/classrooms/ellis-319-small-classroom-flexible-configuration.

The second room — the interactive display room — sees students seated at round tables in groups of six with one large touch screen monitor per table. By default, the monitor projects the screen of whatever computer is connected to the node at the centre of the table — allowing students to work in groups on content controlled via one student’s computer. However, the instructor may also project to each of the screens from his/her own computer, or display the content of any one table to one or more of the other groups’ monitors. This allows for a significant number of group work/presentation possibilities. This space will be used for the second session of each week and the details can be seen here: http://queensu.ca/activelearningspaces/classrooms/ellis-333-round-tables-and-interactive-displays.

Now it is valuable to discuss the content and desired learning outcomes of my class. My class is a third year class entitled “Canadian Political Institutions and Reform.” The course looks at the formation, history, criticisms, and reform possibilities of five Canadian political institutions  — the executive, the House of Commons, the Senate, federalism, and the electoral system. While most 48 person, third-year courses in the Department of Political Studies are intended to be lectures, in this course I am devoted to the idea that not only can I engage 48 students in the material without using lectures, but that I can do a better job of achieving my learning outcomes if I do so.

The learning outcomes for the course are as follows, in no particular order, and are separated into two distinct categories:

  1. Skills:
    1. Students should demonstrate an ability to critically analyze political institutions, noting strengths, weaknesses, and possible areas of reform or improvement.
    2. Students should demonstrate the ability to perform diverse, substantive research both by reading and understand course materials and by performing their own outside research.
    3. Students should then be able to demonstrate an ability to synthesize this research into clear, persuasive, and well-referenced academic writing.
    4. Students should demonstrate an ability to clearly articulate academic ideas orally, both individually and in groups.
    5. Students should demonstrate an ability to work in teams, balancing responsibilities between team members and building towards strong assignments.
    6. Students should demonstrate the ability to objectively assess their work and the work of their teammates, effectively pointing out both positive and negative elements.
  2. Knowledge
    1. Students should be able to demonstrate an improved understanding of the origins and functions of Canada’s political institutions.
    2. Students should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the common reform proposals for the political institutions studied in the course.
    3. Students should be able to demonstrate a clear understanding of the political barriers and opportunities to such reforms.

Important here is a greater focus on skills. It is exactly this kind of teaching that is most difficult in a standard lecture format. While one could perhaps argue that lectures promote critical listening skills, I’d argue that the only skill that sitting through ten lectures a week promotes is resisting boredom. The rest of this entry will try to demonstrate how I will utilize the active learning classrooms to achieve the learning outcomes — particularly those in the skills category. Since the two active learning classrooms contain drastically different configurations, I will be asking students to undertake very different activities in each of them.

The flexible configuration room is clearly meant for low tech, group oriented activities that fluctuate from week to week, taking advantage of the limitless configurations of the room. This is the room where we will engage with the readings and the core concepts from each week. This will happen in three broad ways: reading presentations by students, topic presentations by the instructor, and in-class institutional simulation activities designed by the instructor and carried out by students. The order of the three possible activities will vary from week to week based on the topic, giving the sessions a free-flowing, active, unpredictable feel. Each session will have a seating arrangement designed to facilitate the in-class activity, which will be unknown to students as they arrive in the classroom. By the end of these sessions students should know the basic content of the readings, some related concepts, and have had a chance to do an activity under the assumptions of the institution being studied. Also, importantly, they will have had a chance to mix and work in groups with different students than the static groups that follow in the second session.

The interactive display room is perfect for group work, with the ability to transmit progress from group to group, leading me to think it ideal for intergroup exchange, collaboration, and critique. In these classes students will be asked to work in stable groups, working progressively on a group project that offers a critique and a reform proposal for each of the five institutions studied in the course. Each week students will focus on group-drafting either a critique or a reform proposal for each of the institutions studied. After finishing a first draft, they will switch with one of the other groups by cross-displaying their proposal to another table. Then feedback will be exchanged and students will integrate criticism. This will occasionally be broken up by small topic presentations or AV presentations by the instructor, but the idea is for these sessions to be more stable, compared to the free-flow nature of the previous session each week.

By engaging students in active, group focused, critical thinking oriented activities as opposed to passive lecture sessions my hope is that I can make better use of the in-class time to encourage the learning outcomes outlined above. Consequently, the outside-of-class requirements are lower, with only the readings, a small bit of presentation preparation, and one research paper to work on outside of class. This both respects the workload of this individual class, but may also help the students achieve a better work balance across their whole course load. This will be an interesting experiment both for me as an instructor, but also for Queen’s as a university, as the outcomes of these rooms will be actively studied in hopes of taking the best examples forward as models for the future.

Whatever the outcome of my approach, I will report on it at the end of the semester, hopefully giving some valuable advice for other instructors seeking to engage in active learning with medium sized groups.

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