Courses in higher education are taught differently now than they were ten years ago, or at least they should be.
Iterative updating of courses to keep pace with advances in knowledge and instructional technology is nothing new, but recently broader changes have focused on how, rather than what, material is taught.
The traditional paradigm entails a professor, an expert in their field, presenting content to their students who are, in turn, expected to learn it.
Now the classroom focus is shifting from the professor to the learner, inviting students to move from a passive listening role to one of active learning.
Active learning employs activities that require reflection on ideas or solving of problems, with the expectation that this causes a student to assess their own understanding of the ideas and improve retention of course concepts.
Students are still required to learn the same amount of content, but the review and learning of some material is shifted to time outside of the classroom, before the students come to class.
Classroom time is dedicated to putting these facts to work.
I was motivated to begin to incorporate active learning activities into my courses based on published evidence that suggests it is more effective than traditional approaches, anecdotal evidence from my colleagues at other institutions that support this evidence, and my own desire to try better achieve learning outcomes.
I have not completely abandoned lectures in my courses.
My courses are hybrid courses, using active learning techniques to augment traditional methods of instruction.
By using a variety of teaching methods, more students should make more connections. Connections are a critical piece of learning.
When we were young, we learned that the color blue was associated with sound of the word “blue”.
A few years later, we learned that the color blue and the sound of the word “blue” were also associated with the letters that spelled the word “blue”.
We were building a hierarchy of knowledge, and once we encountered this particular association enough times, it was granted a measure of importance,
and consequently some neurons in a color-dedicated region of our brain dutifully changed their cellular anatomy and blue (the color and the word) entered into our long-term memory.
Connections are key, and while teaching, I highlight them at every opportunity.
When possible, I also try to use several examples or distinct processes that can parallel or reinforce a connection.
This can be described metaphorically by relating my experiences in navigating a new city.
After graduating from UMass I moved to Boston and I began learning how to negotiate the subway system, the “T”.
I became familiar with how to get from my apartment (station A) to my job (station B) to the grocery store (station C). After living in the city for some time,
I began to explore by walking, running, or biking at street level.
When doing so I would encounter these various stations, but now I was more (and differently) aware of how they were arranged in space,
and I knew what stores and music venues were located between each. I had a different, richer, appreciation for the landscape of the city. When I teach, I focus on associations. (How will a reduction in plasma calcium affect secretion of calcitonin from the thyroid gland?)
When we encounter that same association in a different context, I highlight it.
(We are discussing bones now, but how might secretion of calcitonin from the thyroid gland affect bones when plasm calcium levels are low?)
I make an effort to reinforce, and build off, previous knowledge. When covering a topic,
I use a variety of approaches to increase the likely look that any one student will make multiple connections.
One of the most significant active learning methods I have adopted is a flipped-classroom, team-based learning (TBL),
approach which I have integrated into my Anatomy and Physiology courses.
TBL is a teaching strategy that asks students to work in small groups to apply their knowledge to solve complex problems.
The expectation is that this approach fosters high levels of active student engagement when compared to traditional didactic lectures.
The TBL approach entails three core elements: Student preparation, in-class readiness assurance testing (RAT), and an in-class application focused exercise.
For the first element, student preparation, before class students read textbook material and study a movie that I have prepared.
This ensures that they have covered the appropriate course material and that the students are prepared to engage in a group for the focused exercise.
For the second element, students complete an individual RAT (IRAT) in the form of a quiz then work in groups to complete the same quiz as a team RAT (TRAT).
The TRAT quiz questions are answered on scratch cards so that feedback to the student is immediate and both IRAT and TRAT scores count towards the students“ grade.
Once the quizzes have been collected, I spend some class time answer questions and clarify misconceptions. For the remainder of the class time, the third element,
in a focused exercise, students continue to work in teams to apply and extend their knowledge. The focused exercise that I primarily use are Clicker Cases.
These are in-class case studies that the students work through in groups, and respond to questions using iClicker remotes.
I have found that Team-Based Learning promotes student interaction and peer-to-peer teaching.
Without question, the students are more engaged and I have found that almost all students prefer it to lecture-based instruction.
I also use traditional lectures because I think they can be used effectively to present material and offer suggestions on how to learn content (e.g. learning mnemonics).
When using lectures, however, I integrate various strategies to keep the students engaged. I frequently use dry-erase (or smart) boards to write down terms and definitions,
and map out concepts to encourage the students to do the same. I also invite students to join me in drawing and mapping out these concepts in front of the class to create a more dynamic, accountable, active learning environment.
In support of my Anatomy and Physiology courses, I have created 15 movies that review important concepts.
These movies use video, 3D virtual representations, and models, and have been edited to couple narration with text to meld auditory and visual modalities.
I use collaborative learning strategies with particularly challenging content, such as muscular system anatomy in Anatomy and Physiology, by requiring the students to develop group presentations for their peers.
In my Cell Biology course I incorporate journal articles that the students read before class, to stimulate guided discussions relating to, thereby reinforcing, lecture content.
In the lab component of this course, I use open-inquiry projects wherein students formulate hypothesis and design their own studies, then conduct them.
Learning to teach requires experimentation and frank assessments of the efficacy of new approaches.
Not all alternative teaching methods are necessarily better than traditional methods for all instructors and students.
As I move forward I will continue to try new approaches to teaching and adopt those that help more students make more connections,
and offer opportunities for students to think critically and apply their knowledge.