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Getting Students Involved

Karl Smith, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities

When I started college teaching I thought my task was to lecture, assign homework, give examinations, and mark students. I didn't think about alternatives to this approach. I had almost forgotten a comment made by one of my professors, "The problem with lectures is that the information passes from the notes of the instructor to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either one."

After a few disappointing quarters using this approach I decided there must be a better way. The students weren't very excited about the classes, at least not nearly as excited as I, and they were not learning what I thought I was teaching. I remembered my experience in industry working in small task groups, and decided to try this model in my classes. I also began searching for other people at the University who were experimenting with different methods of instruction. In the process, I met education professors David and Roger Johnson, who were studying and developing procedures for cooperative learning.

The Johnson's model for structuring learning cooperatively has four elements that fit nicely with my ideas about teamwork: (1) positive interdependence (achieved through setting mutual goals; dividing labor, materials, resources, or information among group members; assigning students roles; and giving joint rewards); (2) individual accountability for mastering assigned material; (3) face-to-face oral interaction among students; and (4) appropriate use of interpersonal and small group skills (such as decision making, conflict resolution, leadership, etc.). Working with the Johnsons, I began to use small groups in all my courses. At first, restructuring courses from lecture to active learning was both rewarding and frustrating. The response from students was rewarding, but the time and effort required was frustrating.

Learning how to learn is a basic skill I do everything I can to promote. I believe that the abilities to question, talk, listen, experiment, and observe are crucial and should be encouraged in the classroom and laboratory. Content, too, is central to learning, but many perspectives on a problem or issue should be presented. We should trust students to sort things out and help them develop techniques for dealing with information. We should help them learn to analyze a situation, to discover what information is lacking, and to develop a rounded picture of the subject.

Along with my colleagues, I use active learning strategies in my classes because I am trying to make the best possible change in the cognitive structure of beginning engineering students. Professional practice requires that graduates possess necessary prerequisites to perform satisfactorily on the job, three of which are: technological competence, interpersonal competence, and socio-technical competence. Technological competence requires the mastery and retention of science and engineering facts, concepts, principles, and theories; the development of skills in analysis, synthesis, design, modeling, and problem solving; and the development of implementation skills for converting knowledge into action.

Achieving interpersonal competence requires that students develop cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills for working with others to perform a task. Among these skills are communication, constructive controversy and conflict management, interpersonal problem solving, leadership, joint decision making, and perspective taking. Socio-technical competence requires that students understand the complex interdependencies between technology and society, and the influence of technology on individual and collective behavior, and on the natural environment.

Traditional teaching, where students read textbooks, listen to lectures, work individually on assignments, and try to outperform classmates on exams is not as effective in achieving the educational goals outlined above as active learning.

Small Group Problem Solving

In the systems analysis course, we apply operations research techniques to engineering problem solving. The "bus problem" is a good example of the kind of informal decision-making risks we give small groups of students. The objective is to determine how many buses to buy and to give a rationale for the decision. Expectations listed are these: work cooperatively; one answer from each group; every group member must indicate that she or he understands the group's solution and can explain it; make sure all group members have their say; and assist all group members in understanding the material. One person is selected randomly from each group to present the group's solution. We emphasize that groups are not competing and that this exercise will not be formally evaluated.

Generally, two approaches to the solution emerge, one emphasizes minimizing loss and the other maximizing expected gain. Subgroups within each group then prepare and present a rationale supporting each of these approaches and a structured-controversy discussion is conducted during the next class. Following this, the sequence of instruction varies but includes most of the following steps. A structured tutorial is often used to draw out the important elements of the students' formulations and solution. Various approaches are compared. Occasionally a lecture is given to highlight the main points of the formulation and solution or to introduce or clarify important algorithms or heuristics.

A moderately difficult problem is assigned for each group to solve by hand calculation and a computer package is introduced which permits students to revise their formulations and repeatedly solve the problem. Thus they can ask "what if" questions and check the sensitivity of their solution. Finally, we assign a complex, slightly open-ended problem. Students are not informed as to which aspects of the system should be included for analysis, since this lack of information is typical in the real world. Student groups solve this problem using the computer package. Discussion and iteration are required since the solution is sensitive to the formulations and assumptions.

We use the computer to promote active learning by involving students in the discovery of general principles. The computer lets us present a variety of systems in a limited period of time. Graphics illustrate (wherever it makes sense to do so) the behavior of the system, or present an easily interpreted representation of a particular system. We do not use computers in isolation, but in conjunction with appropriate lectures, assignments, projects, and reading materials. In all engineering instruction and problem-solving, we consider personal computers just another tool.

Structured Controversy

The three instructors in the environmental issues CLA honors seminar use small group collaborative instruction with structured controversy. Controversy exists when one person's ideas, information, conclusions, theories, or opinions are incompatible with those of another person, and the two seek to reach an agreement. Differences in viewpoint are an inevitable part of any group's natural interaction, and if managed effectively, can lead to an exciting group learning experience. Instruction focuses on content acquisition and on helping students develop collaborative skills (through small group work), constructive conflict management skills (through structured controversy discussion), and perspective-taking skills (through presentation and discussion of different perspectives on each issue). Structured controversy has effectively stimulated student involvement in issues concerning technology and society.

I am very careful with evaluation of students working in active learning setting, so as not to discourage them from discussion and helping each other. Group products and individual work are evaluated separately. Homework assignments and projects are given a group grade shared by each member of the team. Quizzes and exams are given individual grades and the overall course grade is a combination of group and individual measures, usually about 50 percent each. I find it important to use criterion-referenced exam grading and to stress that students are not working against each other, but that we are all in this together to master as much as possible. Sometimes I give bonus pints to all members in a group when each member scores above a preset criterion. A small number of bonus points provides a tremendous incentive in the form of peer pressure to perform well on the exam.

Self-directed learning

The most frequent comment I hear about my use of active learning, often delivered in a tone of shock and disbelief, is "You mean to say you don't lecture?" Since I don't lecture it seems many people think I'm not teaching! My goal is that students become self-directed learners. I help them develop their own resources to come to grips with material they are trying to master, lecturing only when I think it will do more good than harm.

Wilbert McKeachie, author of Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher, claims lectures are unnecessary when concepts are available in printed form at an appropriate level for our students. Compared with lectures, print presents information in a form which can be covered more rapidly and retrieved more easily than lectures. Using printed materials, students can choose their own rate of learning: they can review, skip, and vary the order.

The key to using active learning strategies is to focus on the students as resources and help them develop the tools they need to get on with the job of learning. Active learning will help us encourage students' motivation and skills for continued education, problem solving, and the application of theories and principles after the course is over.