Friday, January 30, 2015

Creating Time for More Engagement

Sometimes we teach in situations where we cannot use a full IBL approach.  Perhaps the class is too large or there are "coverage constraints" that are outside of your control.  Despite such restrictions due to environmental factors outside of the instructor's control, there exists strategies that be used to create time to engage students.

Think-Pair-Share (TPS) is a core piece.  What's nice about TPS is that one can expand or contract the size of the TPS task so that it fits into your existing system and/or the specific need at the moment.  Simple, quick concept questions to longer problem-solving tasks span the typical range of TPS uses in Math.  So the goal is to get time to insert TPS, and engage students through specific tasks where they get to think for themselves.

The main topic of this post is creating time.  Below are some strategies to buy a little time.
  1. Instead of coping the statement of problems, exercises, definitions on the board only for students to copy them into their notes, a handout can be used where all of this is printed or available on electronically.  The time used for all this writing can now be used to process, think, and discuss.  Handouts potentially save quite a bit of time.  In traditional courses, a chunk of each class period is spent on writing on the board and writing in notes, often of things that are already printed in the textbook.  Further, the time it takes to write your lecture notes, can be used to type up a handout.  It really doesn't take that much more prep time.
  2. An example of the above is the typical "working an example" for the class.  Normally a teacher works through each step and shows what to do to the students in class.  If this example was printed on a handout, then those 5-6 minutes of instructor show-and-tell could be made much more active.  It can be from a quick, "Think of how you'd start this example... then check in with a neighbor" to a more involved "Try it, and we'll have someone share it on the board in a few minutes."
  3. On a related note, having students read or work on basic material outside of class can create time to do something deeper in class.  This is based on the "flipped class" idea.  Flipped classes of course can create much more time, but not all faculty can invest this much time for every class to do this.  An intermediate step between zero and fully flipped classes is to use reading assignments or similarly constructed tasks done outside of class to get students up to speed.
  4. If you're going to use group work for part of the time, ask students to move into groups at the beginning of the class.  Then they are ready to go, and discussions ramp up faster.  Less time is spent on the students getting up to the point where they are talking.   It's noted that when students are in rows and have been passive for long stretches, there's more inertia.  This inertia can be a time sink.  Setting up the class "Feng Shui" can move things along faster.
  5. Use more efficient prompts and questions. Several times during a lecture instructors often ask "Do you understand?" or "Are there any questions?"  And wait a minute... and no one has anything to say... You might as well swap out those few empty minutes in class for a more useful bit.
  6. Cull optional material from the course.  Some topics are more valuable than others.  Learning how to minimize some topics, gives you extra time to spend on more important material in a more engaged way.  The uniform distribution of time across topics isn't likely to be optimal, since some topics are more important than others.  
One or two of these strategies gets you a fair amount of time to get things going.  In aggregate, you actually get a significant chunk of time.  It's similar to Moneyball in major league baseball.  Small advantages are pushed in aggregate over large sample sizes.  An extra 15-20 minutes of quality time, every day over a term or year can lead to significant learning results.