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Encouraging Active Learning in Large Classes

An Easy (And Low-Tech) Method

by Dr. Nora Underwood, Professor of Biological Science

  Dr. Nora Underwood

At major universities like FSU, large-enrollment courses are a necessity. They are an efficient way to convey information to large numbers of students, but they are a difficult format in which to teach students to think actively about what they are learning. In addition, faculty often have difficulty determining what students are thinking, as many students are afraid to ask or answer questions in front of a large audience.

Technology, in the form of personal response systems (PRS’s, also called “clickers”), is gradually being added to our large classrooms. PRS’s are an excellent tool for allowing students to register their opinions anonymously and for getting students to stop and think frequently in lecture, but low-tech alternatives can also work in any size class, large or small.

Here I briefly describe one of these methods for active learning that has been very useful to me in teaching my large lecture courses: Introductory Biology (250 students) and Conservation Biology (55 students). I did not invent this technique; rather, in the grand tradition of teaching, I learned (stole) it from other teachers.

The Minute Assessment

My favorite large-class technique for getting students to think and tell me what they are thinking is the “minute assessment” or “minute paper.” At some point in a lecture I pose a question or a pair of questions for the students. The students have one to a few minutes to write their responses. If I pose the question in the middle of the class period, we discuss the responses in class (see example below). Often, however, I use minute assessments as a way to end a lecture, then discuss the student’s responses at the beginning of the next class. A moment of writing is a productive way to use those last couple of minutes when students are restless and losing focus.

Whether I use a minute assessment in the middle of class or at the end, I always have the students turn them in at the end of the class. I read through the student’s responses after class to get a sense for how the class is doing. In very large classes it is not strictly necessary to read all the responses— just enough to get a sense of the class. Although I often tell myself I will only read some student responses to save time, I always end up reading them all because I am interested in the responses and the process doesn’t take all that long. If I assigned the assessment at the end of lecture, I start the next lecture with a brief summary of what students had to say in their assessments. If the responses revealed considerable disagreement or confusion, I use that as the basis for a discussion or review of the difficult material. Regardless of the outcome, I think it is important to come back to the students with some summary of their assessments to make clear that you are really interested in their thoughts, so that they learn more from each other, and so that they will put effort into their next minute assessment.

Grading the Minute Paper

In theory, minute assessments could be graded or returned to the students with comments, but that would make their use impractical in really large classes. Instead, I simply give students a point or two of credit for turning them in. The time involved in recording those points is relatively small, and with so few points at stake I feel no pressure to take time to judge the quality of student responses. Recording who turned the assessments in also becomes one way to note attendance for at least some lectures (I don’t bother to take attendance regularly). Occasionally I pose a question for a minute assessment that students might feel uncomfortable answering (e.g., I might ask them their opinion about evolution). In those cases, I encourage students to turn in their names on separate pieces of paper from their minute assessments so they get credit for their participation. Even though the assessments are worth only a point or two, I find that the majority of students take them quite seriously, even when responses are anonymous. For assessments done at the end of class, students often stay several minutes after class to write longer responses, even though a sentence or two would be sufficient.

Minute assessments work best when they are conducted repeatedly during the semester so that students get used to them. In a typical semester, I usually assign 5–7 assessments. I do not tell the students when they will occur. I plan to use minute assessments for certain lectures to generate discussion or when I know a particularly difficult issue is involved. Others I use on the spur of the moment if the class seems to need refocusing or if I come to a logical breakpoint in lecture material a little early (better for the students to process what they have learned than to launch into a new subject in the last few seconds of class time).

Appropriate Questions

The usefulness of minute assessments depends on choosing appropriate questions. In general, questions that are a little open-ended or that require some thought probably work best, as opposed to factual questions with one-word (or number) answers. You want the questions to cause the students to process some information and work to express themselves, albeit briefly. Many excellent questions will be specific to the material you are teaching. Questions that are useful in almost any kind of course include the following:

  • What was the most important thing you learned in this lecture (or so far in this lecture), and why?
  • What was the most confusing thing in this lecture, and why?
  • What is one question you have about the material covered in this lecture, and what do you think the answer to the question might be?
  • Describe one way that something you learned in this lecture relates to something you learned in the last lecture (or some aspect of current events).
  • Describe what you already know about this subject (where you will cover that subject in the next lecture or part of a lecture).

The Concept Map

One example of how I use a minute assessment in the middle of class involves combining an assessment with a “concept map.” Concept maps are drawings that link concepts or facts together into logical networks with arrows. For example, for the terms “genes, environment, disease” one logical map would have both genes and environment linked to disease with arrows pointing to disease, because both genes and environment influence the occurrence of disease. To use a concept map assessment in class, I give the students a list of 5 to 10 terms and ask them to take a few minutes to connect those terms into a logical map. Usually I encourage them to work with the students next to them to generate conversation. I then ask the students to call out connections that I write on the board, and to explain why those connections are logical. Because students already have something on paper, they are fairly brave about volunteering their ideas. Students who disagree or have alterative connections in their concept maps can call those out, and we use the differences as a basis for discussion of how the terms and concepts are related to one another. After class, I study the students’ assessments. If the majority of assessments show logical connections, I may simply post a consensus map on the class website or present one quickly as review in the next class. If I find common errors, then I revisit those connections in the next class.

Obviously minute assessments can be used in a great number of different ways and combined with other types of exercises. Minute assessments are an extremely simple idea but still a powerful tool for encouraging active thinking and for increasing communication between students and teachers. For more information about minute assessments and concept maps, see the websites listed below (many others are also available). Each description of minute assessments contains broadly the same information, but each also contains a few different suggested questions or uses, so browsing several is worth the trouble.

Concept maps:
Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (a free computer program for drawing and revising large concept maps; not useful for minute assessments but helpful for students who decide to use concept maps as a way to organize their studying).

*Dr. Underwood teaches Biological Science II and Conservation Biology and is a University Teaching Award Recipient (2006).

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  • 18-Feb-2020