Friday, September 19, 2008

Child's Play

This evening my daughter complained about a presentation by an acting group that visited her class today and talked to the kids about how important it is to do well in school. The presentation involved role playing and funny sounds and exaggerated acting and games and (apparently) the assumption that the kids couldn't understand complex concepts like priorities. Although by no means averse to games and role-playing (in fact, her beloved summer camp seems to consist mostly of such activities), she said she hoped that this kind of in-class childish activity went away in college, if not before, and she added, for good measure "I hate think-pair-share."

She was saddened to hear that think-pair-share is alive and well in universities. I have been to numerous teaching workshops in which professors are urged to try it and other activities with cute names. Supposedly, concepts will be more interesting, memorable, and better understood if introduced via activities – i.e., so-called active (as opposed to passive) learning.

A consequence of integrating activities into lecture time is that it may not be possible to cover as many topics – or as many topics in depth – as it would be without the activities. Is it worth it to cover fewer topics if those topics are better understood or is it better to cover more topics and not leave out any important concepts? Of course, part of the equation involves the subjective decision about what concepts are important.

Another issue is that if you want to incorporate active-learning into a lecture-format course, you have to decide how to integrate activities with the rest of the course material, and to make the activities meaningful, not just some random little game that is played for the sake of doing something other than lecture.

I hope that these written statements are fairly clear. Perhaps later I will organize a little anonymous activity we can all do that will help us understand the essential issues and come to a deeper feeling for the topic.

In the meantime, I should mention that some college (and younger) students love these activities, even if some find them insulting and childish. I should also mention that I am not only talking about student response to activities I may attempt in my lectures, but am talking more generally based on information gleaned from other colleagues.

In fact, this post is motivated not only by today's conversation with my daughter but also in part by a recent conversation with a colleague who sat in the back of a classroom while another colleague was teaching. The teaching colleague had students come to the front of the room and do some activities that illustrated concepts; these were not actual experiments but sort of 'analogy' activities where each student symbolized some scientific phenomenon and acted out a process.

The observing colleague overheard some grumbling students say that they hadn’t had to do anything so childish in class since 3rd grade. I can see how it might be a shock, especially for a 1st year student, to arrive at a big university lecture and be expected to play pretend in the front of the class, but perhaps the experience, even if somewhat insulting, will be especially memorable?

I don't know, but I do know that in any large class there is going to be a diversity of opinion on teaching and learning styles. And of course there will also be some disagreement between some professors and students about the best ways to teach and learn.

Late in the last century I went to a teaching workshop in which undergraduates told a group of professors how they (the students) learned best. This workshop was memorable for two reasons:

(1) The students told us professors that they wanted to play “more games” in class; and

(2) An elderly Professor of History, incensed with the relentlessness of the workshop’s message that we should sacrifice course content for “games” and that we should assume that our students are lost and confused and in need of our help with “life issues” (again at the expense of course content), stood up and made an impassioned speech about the beauty of intellectual pursuits and how this beauty would be besmirched if we spent time in class asking students how they were feeling and doing role play games to teach them how to take the bus, even in a class on Ancient Civilizations. The professorial audience gave him an ovation. The students looked glum. The professor-student chasm widened.

Regular readers will recall that I have been taking language courses at my university. I am currently in the 3rd year of these courses. We do role playing and such in these classes, but it makes sense to do this in a language class. It is helpful to pretend to be buying a bus ticket or asking for directions in the language we are learning.

But what about in other classes? What about in science classes? In the science classes I teach, I do some in-class activities, but I don't think any of these could be called games. The activities help break up the lecture format, and I specifically choose activities that are short, interactive, and make a simple but important point. I don't think anyone feels like a 3rd grader during these activities, and so far I haven't had to give anyone a timeout.

I sometimes feel (perhaps because of peer pressure) that I should do more activities in my science classes but I haven't yet found a good way to do this and still have time to discuss all the topics I consider essential.


Karina said...

What is "think-pair-share"? I've never heard of it.

Anonymous said...

I also didn't know what that concept means when I first read it in your article. Anyway, I am curious about how your preteen kid knew the name of that teaching strategy! Has she studied it somewhere, or it's just common knowledge for kids in her age?
I am not American, so enlighten me :)

Julia said...

I have avery strong opinion on those games, and it might be because I totally dislike them. The reason for this is that they don't help me learn more effectively, in fact, it usually feels for me like a waste of time in which I could learn much more.

People have different ways of learning, so using special methods that would not work for the majority of the class seems to me pointless. Once a person figures out how she works, it is fairly easy to learn and study effectively without various, not person-specific tools forced upon her that cost her time and energy.
I am an adult and I would like to choose my way of learning myself.

I think it would be much more helpful if for first-year students, there would be a course on individual studying techniques and time management, so they can learn what works best for them. It would have the benefit that contents don't have to be cut in the "real" lectures. Maybe such a thing would already be good in highschool.

Anonymous said...

I think it's probably good to try to walk the fine line between incorporating some of these methods and going too far with it. If the adult students feel like they're being treated like children, especially in large numbers, then it's a problem. (I mean, at least don't CALL it "think-pair-share" to them!) And role playing can go over the top very quickly, in my opinion.

But I believe the studies that show that because of different learning styles, incorporating different teaching styles into the classroom (including some activities or exercises that the students do) is a more effective way of teaching. And although I rarely had trouble with lecture style teaching or with a huge amount of course material, I felt like I was an exception in that regard when I was taking classes. Generally if the class covers too much material, everyone just has to learn it by rote which won't stick beyond the day of the exam anyway. So I think it's okay to scale down the course content - if the main point is to have them retain the information, at least. If the point is more to teach them how to learn and develop study skills (and memorization is a part of that), the old methods did a decent job of that, too.

An example of where this whole thing can go too far: my mother worked in a school district where they took active learning to such lengths that they stopped grading kids' spelling in elementary school. The idea was that they would pick it up better by figuring it out phonetically and then reading a lot. Right. Those kids grew up to be basically the worst spellers the district had ever seen. Not a successful strategy!

Anonymous said...

Think: Take a moment to come up with an answer to a question the instructor (or another student) has posed.

Pair: Talk with your neighbor about your answer, see if you can come to consensus.

Share: Bring the discussion to the whole class to see if there is consensus on the question or if the question generates more questions.

FSP, I have to say that I'm disappointed with the tenor of this post because I do not think you meant to go after active learning as a concept. I think you meant to go after some ways such an idea is implemented. I have had professors who lecture incessantly for the entire class period, never once stopping for more than a second to see if everyone was following along. Given that learning really involves changing your brain chemistry, I do not think "passive" can be an appropriate adjective for such an activity.

To be sure, various content lends itself to various approaches. Study after study suggests that learning gains are greater when instructors employ active learning strategies that map to the instructor's personalities. (This last statement offered because not all instructors can truly execute any active teaching strategy.)

Allison said...

Think-pair-share is basically: give the students a few minutes to think over a question or topic, have them turn to the person next to them and discuss, then have a class-wide discussion.

I love think-pair-share as a student because it's so much easier to form thoughts by saying them out loud. The only time I've used it as a teacher was with middle schoolers (12 & 13 years old) and it seemed to go over fine.

With all these techniques, the key is asking questions with substance that don't insult the intelligence of your audience. Any tool can be well-used and misused.

Last year I was a student in a graduate-level physics class where we used the interactive clickers. (Similar to think-pair-share, but with instant voting instead of classwide discussion) We joked around about it, since usually only the intro-level undergrad classes use them, but it was wildly popular overall because the professors asked questions that challenged our understanding and intuition.

Anonymous said...

Well, language class:role playing::science class:lab, more or less, no?

A danger with small-group discussions is that often some students have not been paying attention in class and/or are too cool to admit any enthusiasm, and thus contribute few ideas and monosyllable responses. This is unfortunate for two reasons: (1) To the extent that sometimes attendance is obligatory but not useful to a student (due to teaching methods, etc), I believe he or she has the right to multitask in a way that does not interfere with others' learning. In any class where I've experienced this, there has never been any danger of impromptu group activities, but if there were it would be quite stressful. (2) For students who would like to have a discussion but are grouped with non-contributors who either mumble or shift the topic to the last football game, such experiences are unfulfilling and frustrating. Since I've been on both sides of this, I'm generally discouraged by such activities, but I imagine they could be a lot of fun if the class is small and has a prevailing good attitude.

Short Geologist said...

It depends on the course content. It's true that activities are hard to fit into a massive lecture course.

I've had intro courses that were smaller (former SLAC student here) and instead of covering the history of the discipline, the professor picked a few topics (complete with some seriously in-depth activities) to go over in depth. It made the intro course a hell of a lot more interesting and won a bunch of "converts" into majoring in the department

Anonymous said...

I think that when the activities can clearly be seen as related to the class - that most millennials have no problem with it. But what I don't get is all the articles that suggest that you must do activities and games with millennials to get their attention... huh? Millennials multitask because they want to squeeze as much into their time as possible... activities for the point of activities is busy work and they HATE it! So why do all these people keep promoting these pedagogical thoughts that make no sense in relation to the rest of what has been published on the millennial generation?

Unknown said...

I think "think-pair-share" is when you are supposed to think about the problem alone first, then pair up and discuss, then two pairs join and compare their answers.

For undergrad, I went to a teaching school (no PhDs) of all engineering and science majors. We did activities frequently, including (depending on the prof) simply working out problems at our seat while the prof would come around and help if you had trouble, doing problems at our seat in groups, doing problems at our seat but your friend can help, watching or participating in various types of demonstrations, doing problems on the board, filling in the blanks of a notes sheet during lecture, and all getting out our laptops to follow along with a software demo.

Some of these are quite easy to implement, and I think there is no point covering more material than most of the class can really absorb (making them just memorize what they can to get by at the test, then forget it later). I was horrified that, in one class I TA'ed in grad school, the students were just as likely to miss the easy, conceptual problems on the final as the more involved, remember a specific equation problems. It was like they just memorized random bits and pieces so they could do some of the higher level problems just because they had seen a similar one before, even though they had no idea how to explain anything.

I do think that it would be hard to implement some of these if you didn't have as much time to spend on teaching prep as my professors did. (Some of the activities I did were similar to think-pair-share, I guess, but I had never heard of that in undergrad! In fact, just using the term "think-pair-share" suggests a level of cuteness rarely seen in engineering classes.)

Tex said...

Is it worth it to cover fewer topics if those topics are better understood or is it better to cover more topics and not leave out any important concepts?

This statement assumes that these play activities are superior over other instructional methods in effective learning. I doubt credible research bears this out. Certainly, the latest report showing one-third of college students require remedial education creates some doubt.

These games, and other types of “crayola curriculum”, are rampant in public schools. My biggest gripe about this stuff is the time wasted in the classroom. Schools are allowed to play and “discover” with students, while parents are often charged with making sure their children know their multiplication tables, as an example. And, every indicator I’ve seen suggests that this is what’s actually going on in, at least in affluent communities. OTOH, in low SES communities, well, kids are mainly stuck with learning what’s taught in the schools.

I’ve read that many K-12 teachers love these activities because they’re fun and engage the students. Understandably, it’s more fun to make tacos in Spanish class than to master the grammar. But is this type of teaching the best way to raise achievement levels? I suspect not.

MGS said...

Lecture time is precious: it's a time to be exposed to new ideas, to be given the tools to explore those ideas further on your own time, and to be shown what concepts are considered most important for that class.

Lecture forms the basis of our academic system because it makes the most effective springboard by exposing the student to the most information. Active learning is important, but should be done outside of (lecture based) class by working with other students on homework, studying, or laboratories. Conference style classes are another effective method, and I think it would be great for upper level science courses to include conferences as well as lectures and labs.

But to use lecture time to form work groups and discuss the material is insulting. I attended a differential equations class where, at the latter half of the first lecture, we were asked to form groups and discuss calculus. It was a huge waste of my time. I dropped that section for another one where the professor used a calculus homework set to make sure we were all on the same page. Rather than spending 10 minutes talking to people about calculus, I went home and spent as much time as I wanted reacquainting myself with calculus, deriving certain properties so that I could remember them better, and actually working with the math to learn it better than just discussing it with some other students. The homework set let me see what calculus concepts I needed to remember for the course, whereas the group activity in the other class merely reminded me of the power rule.

Anonymous said...

The "active learning" advocates have some strong arguments and data (at least for certain implementations) but there is also a certain amount of chaff mixed with the wheat, and an evangelical zeal that inevitably slows acceptance of whatever good ideas they might have. (I can never tell whether they want me to teach physics, buy a timeshare, or join a religion.)

There are a few times when I've used student demonstrations. With certain experiments I will have the student do it rather than me, and have the student report what he or she is observing.

Also, when I wanted to explain hole conduction in semiconductors to a group of photography majors (it was an optics class, and we were discussing CCD cameras) I had them form a line with one empty spot. The person behind the empty spot moved into the empty spot, leaving a new empty spot behind him or her, and then the person behind that empty spot moved forward, and so the empty spot propagated backward.

I didn't do it out of an ideological commitment to active learning, but because (1) it very visually illustrated how forward motion in response to a void propagates the void backward and (2) OK, I did want to inject a bit of a break into a very long lecture. (It was an unusual school where we taught 6 hours/week for 7 weeks, and students took 2 intensive courses per half semester rather than 4 courses per semester.)

Jennifer Imazeki said...

"if you want to incorporate active-learning into a lecture-format course, you have to decide how to integrate activities with the rest of the course material, and to make the activities meaningful, not just some random little game that is played for the sake of doing something other than lecture." It seems to me that this is the key, both to having active learning that works, and to the objections to it (from students or teachers). Too often, active learning, or using technology or other TOOLS, get promoted in a way that sounds like they are great simply in their own right and teachers should adopt them, period. That does a disservice to the tools as well as the students. But like most good teaching, it is really hard work to come up with interactive activities that are really relevant and meaningful!

Anonymous said...

As a biology grad student, I've been really interested in science pedagogy. I was an active learning skeptic, until I watched some videos of Richard Felder in action.

I don't think we can all integrate the methods as well as he does--he has obviously spent his whole career building up a curriculum. But he does show that active learning can be an overwhelmingly effective technique, and he does it in "hard science" at a "hard science school."

Anonymous said...

A few points, some reiterating what has already been said.

1. Traditional lecture is a choice with strengths and weaknesses. There is now a lot of strong data showing that pure traditional lecture, even by a popular lecturer, is not as effective for learning as one might think. In particular, "it worked well for me when I was a student" is not a scientific argument. Eric Mazur is probably the simplest source of data for this; see his book, "Peer Instruction." He won teaching awards at Harvard and then discovered that his smart Harvard students were learning far less from his award-winning lectures than he had ever thought.

2. Some active learning methods are (a) popular with students and (b) shown to increase learning gains. Obviously both (a) and (b) are important.

3. To implement active learning methods in your class, it is important that these methods fit your personality; it is very important that you understand how and why they are supposed to be used so that you don't mis-implement them; and it is important to consider your audience and sell the method to the students.

4. Related to "how and why these methods are used", a big part depends on the questions or activities you use. You can use think-pair-share with awful questions and students will feel condescended to. You can do the same activity with better questions and students will engage better. Sometimes these methods fail when someone tries to use them without fully understanding how to write good questions or design good activities. On the other hand, at this point, in nearly every field of science, there are good sets of questions & activities for different active learning method.

5. I agree that some of this takes effort to implement. Finding these good sets of questions and sorting through them to get the ones appropriate for your own class takes time. I don't know what's the best way to make this easier.

6. Last thought: I've read a lot of literature on active learning, and some of the literature is just awful. But, some studies are quite careful and show that a wide variety of students benefit from these methods. Certainly they show that some of these methods are superior to lecture.

Personally, I've used "peer instruction" for many years (with raising hands, holding up cards, and now with clickers). Students love it, I love it, and I am fairly confident that it's working well. It's one of the easiest to implement and also one of the most strongly tested methods.

Anonymous said...

In my med school anatomy class we use think-pair-share (although we don't call it that) sparingly. I find it a useful learning tool when trying to make a clinical diagnosis based on a paragraph about a patient's history and symptoms, and one that mirrors the kind of collaboration we will be doing professionally. However, rather than simply thinking about each question, we are required to write our answers on an index card. These are never collected, so in addition to wasting paper the students are left feeling offended at the implication that either a) we cannot keep a thought in our heads longer than two seconds or b) we as a group are so apathetic we would not do the exercise otherwise. There are several other aspects of this class that leave the students feeling condescended to (you know how in pre-school the teacher would raise her hand, and you would all raise your hands to show that you were ready to be quiet? Yeah, we do that. Average age of students: 25), it seems difficult to keep everyone in a large class on board with such small-group exercises.

Anonymous said...

I think slowing down, and giving students time to stop and think during lecture is one of the things that is universally important for all learning styles. The brain simply takes some time to assimilate information. Particularly for conceptual subjects, it can be very important to break and assimilate information before moving on to another topic that builds on the first.

I think this can be in a think-pair type style, or it can be a clicker question based on a just-introduced concept, or it can be that you ask students in the middle of class to write down a summary of what they have been told so far in class.

I also think that group work and "activities" can be fairly effective depending on the situation. This is because it puts the student in the position of "teaching." For example as a TA I can either stand up front and read off the answers to problems, or I can have students work the problems in groups and then present their approach to the class. Having the students present gives all the advantages of me reading off answers, and adds the bonus that students will have to think carefully about the problems that they present.

Anonymous said...

I this is a good example of why having sections for large lecture classes is so useful.

As a grad student I TAd the same course a number of times, and had a demo I would do that involved having the students stand around a table, and yell out which direction the electrical and chemical gradients would be pushing ions across a membrane. The ions were candy. It was arguably really juvenile and insulting, which is what one of the professors thought. Thats all fine, but having them physically reason it out really helped most of the students- almost every eval I got mentioned that that demo was what helped them clearly understand the process we were studying. There are tons of internet demos they can see at home, for the same exact thing, but they don't really work as well as having it physically in front of you. There is definitely a place for these things, but maybe its just not lecture time.

Anonymous said...

I have some "activities" for my computer science classes, some that I do, some that I involve students.

The "peanut-butter-and-jelly" lecture is legendary. People have actually come back second year to then film the mess. (an illustration of the concept of algorithmics).

I have a pointer game that I do, pointers being something students just do not understand. They could read a book to understand, but most won't read.

I pull the biggest guys that talk the most in class up front for this one. Giving them attention makes them feed from my hand the next few sessions, they are quiet and attentive :)

After we are done I ask for questions - and the thing is, they can now ask good questions like: if Joe is pointing to Sam, can someone else point to Sam at the same time?

They cannot ask this question in real computer science language yet, because terms like "pointer" and "pointer object" or "reference" have no meaning. But "pointing to Sam" does make sense, and from this, they understand what a pointer does (duh, it points).

These activities must be done in moderation - I may have one a week, some are very short. Chopping an apple in half with a meat chopper goes fast - and gets them quiet. Teacher has a knife.... (this is for type conversion)

Hilary said...

For myself (as a former FSP), I used to save lab time to do "games" one lab per term I'd divide the class in two, one half to defend molecular orbital theory, one to defend valence bond theory. The students loved it, it didn't waste class time, they had to research both topics (besides what we'd covered in class) and teach each other to make sure that they'd all learned everything. We'd take two lab sessions and one class to work on this assignment.

I'm currently taking an arts course, and our instructor is all about "common sense learning" versus dialectical learning. You can guess which one she "didn't buy" (her words) and which one is "better" for learning.

I asked my students many times, in many of my classes, which format they preferred, and almost unanimously, they preferred to be lectured to, to have me build on concepts, and to answer questions on tests that built on concepts and made them think. They did not like games or group work in class, and felt like we were wasting time when these activities were used.

Pagan Topologist said...

I think making teaching as Socratic as possible is far more effective than any other method. Trouble is, stidents often do not feel that the professor is doing anything. But, weeks, months, or even years later, they come to appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I am repeatedly shocked, here and elsewhere, but the tone of discussion about teaching. We are all scientists. We bring science to pretty much all aspects of our lives. Except, it seems, in teaching. There is really very little data about teaching methods, information retention and so on given the vast number of students being taught, scientists doing the teaching and tightly held opinions about teaching.

Part of the problem is the disdain that many of us have towards the education departments at our universities. I am no longer willing to participate in Teaching seminars on campus because of the clear lack of respect for my time these people seem to have. Worse still is the reputation of Mathematics Education within the mathematics community.

In class I use 'attendance quizzes' to break things up, get everyone on track and point out that the students don't know what they think they do. To spur independent learning and communication I encourage group homework, projects, essays and so forth but I have very little time for that in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

I am no longer willing to participate in Teaching seminars on campus because of the clear lack of respect for my time these people seem to have.

Actually, I find that things organized on my campus by faculty who care a lot about teaching are often (but not always) useful. The workshop I attended last week at our writing center was a huge help, and I completely retooled my approach to lab reports after an exercise where we had to more clearly think through what we were doing.


Although one of my best friends is a Physics Education Researcher, some of the leaders of that community are annoying beyond belief. They give their seminars with the zeal of evangelists and the pressure of time share salesmen, and they always want you to buy their book. I have better experiences with people who used the book or technique or whatever, and can offer practical advice from the perspective of a successful user. I went to a physics education workshop and I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to teach physics, buy books, find Jesus, or buy a timeshare.

It's a shame, because I think they have some useful things to say, but their mission in life is to alienate as many physicists as possible and then scratch their heads as they ponder why somebody might not like their schtick.

Pagan Topologist said...

Mathematics education specialists can be very useful, and I consult with them often. I think the central problem is that their goal is to educate the top 90% of the students to a level of competence, whereas mine is often to educate the top 5% or 10% to the level of excellence. These goals are not always compatible, and the math ed people are of little help on the latter. I typically attend a a national teaching conference once a year, and one or two research conferences in my field a year, often as an invited speaker, but I will attend, invited or not.

Arlenna said...

The course I am starting my teaching experience in uses 'think-pair-share'-type things every day in lecture, and it works extremely well. The course has been extremely thoughtfully designed, and the primary professor has a lot of data on the effectiveness of the methods he has used to teach the material (Organic Chemistry to pre-pharmacy students). He always gets very high evaluations from students, and the students consistently perform well even in such a challenging class. The lecture is considered a holistic part of learning the material, an opportunity to get extra help with understanding the complexities of organic reactions and systems.

Like someone else said: the key is to not be cheesy and dumb about it. Discussion in small groups helps them learn (the ones who already mostly got it learn it better by explaining it to the ones who hadn't), and the large group discussion and open forum for asking questions (even in a 300 person lecture class) helps them all keep up on the difficult concepts.