Promising Practices: Take-Aways from NFALC*

28 Sep Image is of a square cardboard box with the word "suggestion" written on the two visible sides.

*National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms, that is.  And these are take-aways
that can be adapted to “ordinary” classrooms.


During August, the Center for Educational Innovation co-sponsored (with the UMinn Office of Undergraduate Education) the 2015 National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms to focus on advancing practice and research on active learning classroom spaces, pedagogies, and practices.  We’ve invited CEI staffers who participated in the conference as presenters and delegates to share their favorite “take away” moments from the conference – focusing on practices that might be applied whatever the learning space learners and teachers occupy.

In this post, we share “take away” points from two staffers: Kris Gorman and Christina Petersen.

Flipped Learning & Problem Solving

Kris links her take away to a presentation by Jae-Eun Russell and Mark Andersland, who teach within the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa. Mark recently converted his electrical engineering circuits course to a flipped learning format. Like many teachers making this shift in STEM field courses, he has seen large increases in student learning by having them use class time for problem solving. In fact, the students do three times as many problems in the new format, which:

  • is accessible via most smart devices,
  • supports numeric, symbolic and many other question types,
  • supports randomized, per-student versioning of questions, and
  • provides hints, and scores questions, in real-time.

The session slides report these Success Keys:

Image 1

The particularly salient takeaway, Kris notes, is how Mark manages giving feedback and keeping students on task in class: “He’s using the homework system, MasteringEngineering, for administering the in-class activities. He sets up a “homework” assignment that becomes available a few minutes after class starts and closes a few minutes after class ends. Students use their laptops or mobile devices to log-in. They can make multiple attempts and get instant feedback (and no additional grading for the TAs). The system can robustly accept numerical and algebraic answers.”  The image below showcases some of the features of this online problem statement, which are fully set out in the slideset:



As Kris notes, “The most interesting thing about this approach was that homework system randomly generates the numbers for the particular problems, so each student is working on the same problem frame but with different values. Because of this, when students work together, their conversations have to focus on how to do the problem, not what number to plug in. This shift towards conversations about process and problem solving rather than “plug and chug” also shifted testing outcomes:


And, we’ll not that the results reported here regarding in-class problem-solving align with findings within the long-term research conducted by Uri Treisman regarding learning in multiculturally rich classrooms. As reported in this extract from Craig Nelson’s article “Student Diversity Requires Different Approaches to College Teaching” the overall findings are that gains in student learning require opportunities students – individually and with others – to engage in application, synthesis, and multiple retrievals of information through problem solving to spark long-term comprehension of core concepts.

Collecting Responses

Christina Petersen shared three possibilities for collecting together the ideas generated when students move from responding to a prompt or question individually, on into talking together to check, share, compare and/or develop ideas:

Call a Friend:  Instructors can generate a random call procedure (shuffling note cards with students name, or running an application that creates randomized class list, for example) linked to individual students (as opposed to calling on a specific table and section of a room) to spark sharing of ideas from a small group of learners. The student called upon could confer with one or two people nearby before answering the question, akin to calling on a friend in some game shows. Or the random calling could come after a small group (think-trio-share) or team’s informal report out: “Joe, what did you and your partner come up with for this?”

Create and Access a Gallery Walk: Use the 4 X 6 inch Post-Its for individual student output to a question or assignment. Have students post the answers anywhere they will stick at eye level (walls, windows, doors). Then ask students to wander the room and look at other student responses (gallery walk). The post-its could even go out in the hallway if the room is particularly tight. Photographing and/or typing up students’ responses will help all students to review later – and can function as a move toward universal design for learning in classrooms that limit some students’ mobility, and in context where students access course materials via screen readers. (In some classrooms, students take turns typing up the documents from Post-Its and/or photographs; in this way, all students can become involved in the transcription and learning-while-transcribing process. See also item 3 below.)

Team Up Ideas:  Encourage students to take team notes when working together; the team notes might be written onto white boards or large-sized Post-Its, or typed into a shared Google document. In each case, primarily one student would create this record of ideas as the team is talking and working together. Where students cannot see an emerging type-based document on a big projected screen, they could at least view it on their individual devices, and a whiteboard or large Post-It could become a photographic record, and all become available for viewing later.




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