Active Learning Strategies

This week, we present you with a podcast episode! In this episode of Teach Better, Professor Lynn Regan shares active learning strategies she has used in her classes. She discusses how she structures group projects and some of the challenges of doing so.

Two of the biggest challenges are problem formulation and timing. Her solution is to talk for 20 minutes and then formulates questions that take groups to solve 15 minutes. Groups then present their problem solving processes and the class debriefs different methods and solutions before discussing the days’ takeaways. It is quite valuable to hear the reasoning behind her choices.

With Dr. Regan, hosts of the podcast discuss how to help students “do” things. They give examples of assigning specific tasks and roles in science and social science classes.

Group Projects and Collaboration

Back from Spring Break, this week’s piece is an interview between Brian Mathews and his colleague Tom Ewing. Their discussion addresses group work and creating environment for collaborative learning in the classroom. Tom and Brian conclude on possible reasons why students struggle with group assignments.

Most students (particularly in History) are accustomed to working alone: grades are an individual effort.


Students are comfortable with writing papers—designing something was a completely different experience.


There is a sense of imbalance—one person ends up doing most of the work.


There is fear of showing what you don’t know.


Students are very comfortable with study groups but working together on a graded assignment introduced different dynamics. Perhaps there is some trust building (and maturity) that they have not developed yet?

Tom then used those lessons to stimulate sense of partnership by gathering a group of undergraduate students working on a research topic and observed positive group dynamic from the research outcome. Find out the rest in the article.

Our First Friday Roundtable titled “Motivating Academic Honesty. Should we use software? What are various strategies to use to reduce dishonesty?” will take place next week, April 15th, Gore 208. Register here.

Review of The Heart of Higher Education by Parker J. Palmer & Arthur Zajonc

Earlier this month, the Faculty Commons hosted a book club session on The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, Transforming the Academy through Collegial Conversations by Parker J. Palmer & Arthur Zajonc with Megan Scribner. The book tackles the controversial topic of the purpose of higher education. The authors ask specifically:

“How can higher education become a more multidimensional enterprise, one that draws on the full range of human capacities for knowing, teaching, and learning; that bridges the gaps between the disciplines; that forges stronger links between knowing the world and living creatively in it, in solitude and community?” (2)

The book answers those questions by taking a holistic approach to the student. The authors assert that a college education should go beyond teaching area-specific materials, and instead prepare students to become full-grown citizens, invested in society.

The authors encourage discussions and debates within academic communities to foster a more rounded understanding of students, one that considers that

“the relationships and experiences of our lives – and the lives of our students – are not dismissed as irrelevant or inconsequential but are fully granted their own standing as building blocks of reality; they are not secondary qualities or adaptive strategies but primary dimensions of our humanity.” (11)

Professors as mentors as well as teachers can have a great impact on adopting such a view. The book lists many examples where teachers started making changes within their classrooms to consider the students beyond academic standards. The annexes in particular offer a series of testimony and experience from professors and student life professional of the practical ways they have implemented a more integrative view of education, one that combines theory and practice.

Throughout the book, Palmer and Zajonc also list questions that professors can use to keep the discussion going about the role of college in students’ development, and the role professors and other supporting employees can have.

The book is available on amazon here, or at the library.

Benefits of Cumulative Exams

Dr Maryellen Weimer writes this week’s article on cumulative exams. Students often express worry over the possibility that their finals encompass a whole semester’s worth of material.

Although teachers should not ignore or discount student preferences across the board, there is the larger issue of which testing procedures best promote deep learning and lasting retention of course content. The evidence on the side of cumulative exams and finals is pretty much overwhelming, and those empirical results should not come as a surprise. An exam with questions on current and previous content encourages continued interaction with course material, and the more students deal with the content, the better the chances they will remember it. Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason they ought to be used: preparing for them requires more time and energy devoted to understanding and remembering course content.

What are we to do if students dislike a particular evaluation, yet that evaluation is the very center of evaluation of deep learning? Dr Weimer argues that professors should involve students in the rationale behind such exams from the beginning and offer them tools to make the process more approachable.