Connecting the dots…

In the midst of finals, I have connected the dots. I don’t know why I have not seen until now. On the other hand, sometimes all it takes is some time to marinate before it hits you… Here is what I am talking about…

My research interest (at least over the last 12 months) has been heavily focused on team learning, communication, and collaboration in work environments; how they affect clinical and organizational outcomes; how psychological safety and group composition comes into play. From a management or leadership perspective, knowledge about how people learn (individually and collaboratively), how learning can be motivated, initiated, and improved, and optimized is a crucial tool to enhance performance.

So, while I have been relating our class discussions and materials to the classroom environment only, I may well extend them to inform my research. This is a neat little epiphany for me that made me realize (once again) how everything is related and connected.

Go beyond what you (think you) know and expand your horizon.

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Allergies and BB…

What is the LAST thing you need during the final weeks of a semester? Yes, allergies. Nothing gets done. I feel like my brain functionality is severely compromised. And I apologize for posting late this week – I blame whatever is making its way through the air-conditioning into my lungs.

My favorite reading from last week’s topic was “Mind over Matter” on Course Management Systems (CMS) and their role in creating effective learning environments. They are useful tools to support the principles of deeper learning. That is, a deeper, more engaged learning experience occurs when learning is social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned. Blackboard (BB) can be used to create this type of environment – but only to a certain extent. I have had experience with this platform both as a student and as a TA. As a TA, I found it rather cumbersome to navigate, and it takes quite some time to determine which features are available, which are most useful, and so forth. As a student, I have mostly come to understand that its role is to make information accessible, such as articles, documents, assignments, and to check grades. I have used the discussion board feature in two online courses – with rather unsatisfactory results. I don’t think this format can really be used to trigger discussions among students and instructors. Blogs, for example, are much more engaging, social, student-owned, contextual, and active. BB is clearly instructor-led. And unlike blogs, only temporarily available to the student. Once the semester is over – the content is gone. This is very unfortunate. I would be interested in testing other content-management systems to have a better idea of what else (other than BB) is out there. But, in the end, aren’t instructors typically bound by what the university or at least the department requires or recommends to use…?

It is everywhere…

It is EVERYWHERE… Active Learning. At least now that I have been introduced to it. I find myself searching for it in my own classroom experience as a student. Since last week, I have come up with a multitude of successful (and unfortunately) not-so-successful examples of active learning. I want to call this my Baader-Meinhof experience (aka frequency illusion) of the week.

One of my best active-learning experiences occurred in one of my Economics classes. Although I am an Economist by training, I do recognize that the class material taught in Economics classes may be considered dry, boring, and hard to digest for many students. Topics of this particular course included supply and demand (Yes, Father Guido Sarducci got that one EXACTLY right), moral hazard, adverse selection, incentives, elasticity, externalities, rationality, opportunity costs, and so forth. Alongside traditional teaching methods (e.g., lectures, problem sets), students were selected into groups to work on an assignment called The Group Fiction Project. The assignment read as follows:

  • Watch a movie (not a documentary) or read a book of fiction and prepare a presentation of it.
  • The presentation will include a brief description of the main plot of the movie/book and an outline of its economic content (either how the events of the movie/book were triggered by economic forces or how the events of the movie/book affected some economic market or markets).

What a great idea, I thought. Our group decided to go with Ocean’s 11. Here is the trailer as a reminder:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_bzUIbE5jo%5D

I do remember being a little skeptical in the beginning. How in the world were we supposed to identify economic principles in a movie?

We agreed upon watching the movie independently, coming up with initial ideas, and sharing them with the group afterwards. Ideas started to develop quickly,  and we enjoyed not just having to read a textbook. Instead, we could discuss a great movie while applying economic concepts. How cool is that? The more we talked about it, the more we found “economically-influenced” scenes. We called our project “The Economics of Crime – A Criminal Mind and his Rational Choices.”

In a sense, the instructor triggered a Baader-Meinhof experience of economic principles by connecting them to something many of us enjoy doing in our free time – watching movies. Active Learning 101. Well played, Professor. Well played.

What? Can you repeat the question, please?

Active learning is an appealing concept. This week’s readings provide an interesting introduction to the topic. I see valuable applications of active learning techniques to catch and then keep students’ attention in the classroom. I found Felder’s introduction to active learning particularly amusing and educational at the same time. A nice little laundry list of how to create an active learning environment!

I do wish that some of my undergraduate and even graduate courses  had made use of some of these techniques. It would have saved me a lot of frustrating, tiring, and – in the end – wasted classroom time… In my opinion, 3-hour evening classes could benefit from these activities. There is absolutely NO WAY that students can pay attention for that long in a traditional, lecture-focused class format.

Thinking back to some of my evening courses, I argue that the last 60 minutes were usually completely lost. As an individual who enjoys learning, this is a truly frustrating experience. I kept wondering why professors structure their class time in such a way… Don’t they see that students drift off? Do they not care? Have they tried other – more engaging – techniques  in the past but weren’t successful? I also remember feeling a little guilty and like a slacker when I found my mind wandering off to other (more or less) important topics.

Sure, asking questions is a form of encouraging active learning through engagement. In that sense, many traditional professors may be considered promoters of active learning, even if they don’t see themselves as such… But the true sense of active learning goes beyond asking questions, in my opinion. How engaging and effective is it really when a professors throws out “Are you with me?” every five minutes?