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Expanding Your Teaching Toolkit

As a new professor, you may not know where to start to incorporate active learning in your courses, particularly if your professors taught almost exclusively through lectures. Good news! You can start almost anywhere.

Carol Ormand's toolbox, complete with rock hammer. Photo courtesy of Carol Ormand.

Whatever you do to move your students from a passive role into an active role in the classroom improves their learning. It also helps to keep them (and you!) from getting bored, frustrated, or loosing concentration (e.g., Felder; National Research Council, 2000 ).

Furthermore, incorporating active learning strategies into your teaching need not be difficult or time-consuming. Including even a two-three minute exercise after 12-18 minutes of lecture significantly increases student understanding and retention of material (Wenzel, 1999) . The resources below describe techniques you can use, and include hundreds of geoscience-related examples of classroom activities.

Active learning methodologies

Ease into using active learning methods by spicing up your lectures with one or more of the following, from the Starting Point collection of Teaching Methods. (The Starting Point website is a collection of resources for teaching entry level geoscience courses, but these resources are useful for teaching at any level.)

  • Interactive Lectures

    Interactive lectures involve (usually) brief interruptions in your lecture, during which students process, discuss, or apply the information they are hearing in some way, thus keeping them actively engaged. Variations include think-pair-share, conceptests, just-in-time teaching, lecture tutorials, and interactive lecture demonstrations. Each of the links below walks you through a more complete description of the method, briefly summarizes the research about learning that validates their use, shows you how to incorporate them in your teaching, and links you to collections of existing activities you can incorporate in your next lecture.

    • Think-pair-share: After you have delivered a lecture segment (say, 15 minutes of lecture) on an important concept, pause for a moment to ask students a question. But rather than asking the whole class at once, pose the question and have students think about it on their own for a minute or two. Then ask them to pair up and discuss their answers to the question. Finally, ask for volunteers to share their answers. This way, everyone in class ponders each question and tries to answer it, rather than hoping that someone else will do so.
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    • ConcepTests are conceptual multiple-choice questions that focus on one key concept of an instructor's learning goals for a lesson. These questions require higher-order thinking (application or analysis, for example, beyond simple understanding). After you have delivered a lecture segment (say, 15 minutes of lecture) on an important concept, pose a ConcepTest question to find out what percentage of your students "got" the concept. You may have them use a classroom response system or a low-tech method to respond.
    • Just-in-time teaching: In just-in-time teaching, students respond (electronically) to thought-provoking questions about the reading shortly before class, allowing the instructor to address areas of misunderstanding during the lecture. Well-constructed questions about the reading can encourage students to be more actively engaged with material outside of class, as well.
    • Lecture tutorials are short worksheets that students complete in class to make lecture more interactive. They are designed specifically to address misconceptions and other topics with which students have difficulties. They pose questions of increasing conceptual difficulty to the students, cause conflict with alternative conceptions, and help students construct correct scientific ideas.
    • Interactive lecture demonstrations utilize a 3-step process to cause students to confront their prior understanding of a core concept. Students predict the outcome of the demonstration, watch the demonstration, and reflect on how the demonstration confirmed or contradicted their predictions.
  • Cooperative Learning

    In cooperative, or collaborative, learning, students work in groups as they learn. Research shows that well-constructed collaborative learning exercises result in greater student learning than independent activities. These methods can be used at any level, including graduate level courses, as described in this page about Keeping Research Seminars Lively and Engaging.

    • Jigsaws: In a jigsaw exercise, the class is divided into several teams, with each team preparing separate but related assignments. When all team members are prepared, the class is re-divided into mixed groups, with one member from each team in each group. Each person in the group teaches the rest of the group what he/she knows, and the group then tackles an assignment together that pulls all of the pieces together to form the full picture, hence the name jigsaw. This structure emphasizes both individual accountability and achievement of group goals.
    • Doing Collaborative Learning describes how to make collaborative learning work in your classroom, and gives many examples of collaborative learning techniques, including think-pair-share, jigsaws, several kinds of group problem solving methods, and more.

Search for active learning exercises in the geosciences