A professor from China who was participating in my English-medium instruction program at the U of A was telling me about his observations of a business administration class. The U of A business faculty uses team-based learning, in which students are given responsibility for their learning, working together independently from the professor to achieve a common goal.
One day, the Chinese professor approached me and said he could see some advantages to this learning approach. “But,” he said, “I have one concern. How would I know if the class is learning anything?”
It was a fair question. The simple answer is, “You don’t know if the students are learning – not unless you’re monitoring the impact of the activity, during and after its implementation.” The best activity design and implementation will fall flat unless the activity actually does facilitate learning.
Here’s how to find that out:
During the Activity
- After the students have started the activity, give them time to get themselves organized and launched into what you’ve asked them to do. After five or so minutes, you can begin wandering around the classroom to listen in on their conversations, gauge their progress. make sure that everyone is participating, and, if necessary, redirect them if they’re getting off track. Also, students are much more likely to ask you questions as you wander by than if you’re sitting at your desk, disengaged from what they’re doing. You can choose to answer or get them to think further about what the answer could be. You may want to write down particularly interesting questions or comments you hear so that you can bring them to the attention of the entire class at the end of the activity.
- Dropping in on the students will also indicate if you need to spontaneously modify what they’re doing. Sometimes, in spite of your careful design, you may have forgotten an instruction or made an assumption that students know something they don’t. You can stop the activity to make a general announcement if the activity is not going as smoothly as you’d hoped.
- Monitor the amount of time remaining for the activity, or parts of the activity, and announce this to the students. I hate having to place limits on engaged student activity, but class time is finite, and I need to be the one to ensure the activity fits those time parameters.
After the Activity
- Be sure to leave enough time at the end of the class – I’d suggest at least 10 minutes – to debrief student learning. It does your activity a disservice when students just pack up their stuff and leave the classroom without having a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned.
- There isn’t one set way to debrief. You can lead with the questions and comments you heard while you wandered around the classroom, and ask for student input. You can pull up the outcome you announced at the beginning of the activity and ask students to assess whether they accomplished the outcome, perhaps on a scale of 1-5, and why they are giving this ranking. You can ask what challenges they faced during the activity and how they overcame them. You can ask about the activity’s applicability to real-world situations. Depending on the group, students may be reluctant to respond to these questions in front of their peers, so consider giving them a written option, in the form of an “exit slip” or a “one minute paper.” Students can hand these to you as they leave the class or respond virtually before the next class.
- The feedback you collect about whether and to what degree the activity positively impacted student learning will help you decide how to proceed in the next lesson. You can take up any remaining questions verbally or consider designing a new activity that addresses learning that did not occur.
- Remember that student learning may not directly align with the outcome or goal you set out. Students may have achieved take-aways from the activity that you didn’t expect, so don’t assume an activity was unsuccessful if this occurs. “In our own eagerness to impose specific learning outcomes, it can be easy to regress to a 19th century view of learning. Just because a student doesn’t mimic your set of knowledge, doesn’t mean they’re not learning. Facilitate a culture of thinking in which students feel empowered to develop original ideas and come to their own conclusions.” (Art and Activity: Interactive Strategies for Engaging with Art )