Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Engage Your Students in 60 Seconds or Less

By Lew Ludwig (Editor-in-Chief), Denison University

Ever feel like the teacher from the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” asking a question and just getting silence back? We’ve all had those moments in the classroom. You pose a well-crafted question to the class, and no one responds.

 Several years ago, I watched Dr. Michael Starbird of the University of Texas – Austin employ a simple technique that has forever changed my own teaching. After you pose your question to the class, pause, then state a slightly rephrased version of the same question. After this, ask your students to take two minutes to discuss with a nearby neighbor.

I saw Dr. Starbird use this technique at a national convention with 300 attendees in the room. After two minutes, the room of strangers was vibrating with engaging discussion. Dr. Starbird could then point to a person and ask, “What did your neighbor say?” Not only did this technique prompt active discussion and engagement, but avoids the risk of embarrassment when putting someone on the spot.

For those familiar with this technique, it is a variation on the Think-Pair-Share model that can help learners of all ages. In this method, the students might first reflect individually on a question, maybe for several minutes writing notes or solving a math problem (Think). Next, the students would turn to a nearby neighbor to discuss their work (Pair). Finally, the instructor calls on students to report (Share).

I have slightly modified this technique to assure a varied discussion: every week I randomly assign students to a pair. These pairs have to physically sit next to each other for that week. When I ask the class to discuss something with a neighbor, they know exactly where to turn.

Does it work? First, the weekly pairing creates a notable community within the classroom as students get to better know each other over the course of the semester. This is very apparent by mid-semester when I walk into the classroom to see students actually chatting with one another as opposed to being absorbed in their own thoughts. Second, students often highlight this technique in the course evaluations. They appreciate the opportunity to test out ideas in a low-stakes environment. Lastly, the class discussion is much richer. Since we have a variety of ideas and viewpoints being shared, the discussion goes much deeper and broader than when only one student answers my well-crafted question.

The “talk to a neighbor” technique is extremely easy to employ, and the time required is very flexible. Sometimes I will give them as little as 30 seconds to compare ideas while longer exercises might call for as much as ten minutes. I circulate the room nudging discussions and gauging understanding. In a given 50-minute class period I use this technique three to ten times, depending on the topic and the mood of the class. I highly recommend you give it a try in your next class. You will be amazed at how quickly your students catch on and become engaged in their learning.

Recommended app: Poll Everywhere

This semester, Teaching Tidbits will focus on useful and engaging apps. A helpful app for the "talk to your neighbor” technique is Poll Everywhere. Give students a link to respond to your question in the app via mobile phone, Twitter, or web browser. Responses are posted online or in a Powerpoint presentation.

This app has many of the same advantages of "talk to your neighbor" but functions more like a clicker system because students can provide their responses anonymously. This makes it a valuable tool for formative assessment and quick checks on difficulty level, pacing and retention.

The free version allows for up to 40 users with a variety of question types and displays. Upgrades allow for more users and additional reporting and tracking options.

Pose a question, visualize responses via Poll Everywhere, and let the discussions begin!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They’re in My Office - Now What? 3 Tips for Productive Office Hours

By Jessica DeshlerContributing Editor, West Virginia University

For students, office hours can be an opportunity to catch up or gain additional insight to coursework that challenges them. Recently, we posted about “5 Successful Ways to Get Students to Office Hours,” but what do we do when they come? How do we make the most out of that time so that it’s productive for faculty and students? Here are a few tips you can try to help your students during office hours:
  1. Tell them your expectations. Let students know early in the semester what your expectations are for office hours. Do you expect them to bring their attempts at working out problems with them to see you? Do they have to keep and bring a journal? What type of pre-meeting preparation do you require of them? Ideally, these expectations should be outlined in the syllabus and during your first class. Be specific and repeat your expectations throughout the semester.
  2. Once you have expectations set, stick to them. Reserve the right to reschedule a meeting if a student shows up completely unprepared to engage in a productive conversation. This is fair to students who have put in the expected effort ahead of time and come to your office with specific questions. Specifically, if students have not done the readings or assignments, or have missed class, give them an additional “assignment” of reviewing another student’s class notes before coming back to you to ask for clarification (and bringing those notes with them so you know they did it - it was an assignment after all).
  3. Let them do the work. Much like class time, the time spent in office hours is most effective if your students spend it working through the mathematics instead of watching you do problems on the board. Your goal as an instructor is not to show them how to solve questions, but to teach them how to go about solving questions and how to think while problem solving. Leading students through the work is incredibly valuable. Questions like “How would you get started on this one?” and “What have you tried so far?” are ways to help students talk to you about their troubles in working through problems.  
Recommended tools: Check out these two tools to help you schedule office hours: youcanbook.me and a cool little setting in Google calendar. Both of these allow you to set aside specific blocks of time in your calendar for students, and allows them to book just part of that time. They’ll get reminders (always helpful for students) and you’ll know that they’re actually going to show up!