December 1996 Volume 23 Number 6
Promote Active Learning During Lectures
By Judith S. LiebmanThe attention span of the average adult during a lecture is eight to 10 minutes. Since most lectures are at least 50 minutes and some lectures are scheduled for up to two hours, there is a serious mismatch between our ability to lecture nonstop and our students' ability to learn. Furthermore, although some students learn best by listening, others find it easier to learn in more active learning environments.
An easy solution is the use of "turn-to-your-neighbor" discussions every 10 minutes or so throughout each lecture. Instead of throwing out questions to the class as a whole and waiting (usually fruitlessly) for a response, ask the students to turn to the student next to them and discuss the question. Depending upon the difficulty of the question, the resulting discussions can last from 30 seconds to several minutes. Then call on one or two student pairs, randomly, to provide the answer.
What happens in the classroom when you do this? All students are involved in developing the answer to the question, not just a single student randomly called on. Students have the opportunity to teach each other, if some don't understand. The element of panic (the professor is going to call on me for the answer and I'm not sure I know it!) is eliminated. The energy level in the class increases perceptibly.
Can this be used in large lectures? Yes, just ask students at the end or middle of rows without discussion partners to lean forward or backwards to join a discussion. Does this reduce the amount of time available to the professor? Yes, less material will be covered in the course, but the amount of material actually learned by the students will be significantly increased.
What types of questions can be used? Almost any type. Examples I have used in an introductory operations research course include:
Is it possible for students to refuse to cooperate? In theory, yes, but in small classes, rarely. It seems to be sufficient for me to walk back to a non-participating student and ask them directly to join the discussion next to them. In large classes, such direct nagging may be infeasible, depending upon the size of the class and the architecture of the classroom. Fortunately, most students appreciate the opportunity to participate in these discussions. On the end-of-semester course evaluations, the turn-to-your-neighbor discussions are invariably singled out for praise.
If you use pop quizzes in your course, an interesting extension is to make such quizzes joint. The pop quizzes are handed out, one for every two students, and worked on jointly. Both students sign their name to the results. Both students get the joint score. This is another opportunity for stronger students to teach weaker students.
Getting started using turn-to-your-neighbor discussions is easy. The first lecture or two in which you use this approach, just begin the lecture by describing the process and ask them to identify the student who will be their discussion partner. After that, it is only necessary to begin a question by "now turn to your neighbor and discuss..."
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome feedback on these ideas and your experiences using them.
Judith S. Liebman is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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