by: Amy Lannin, PhD, Director, Campus Writing Program & Associate Professor in English Education, Missouri
At a large university, it may seem unlikely to see direct results of the teaching that we do. But in the spring and summer of 2018, thanks to work with our first ACUE cohort at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), I was able to witness results of professional learning that was impacting students, even to the point of influencing a student’s choice in college majors.
Meet Dr. Eric Parsons, associate teaching professor in the Economics Department and instructor of a large introductory economics course. Dr. Parsons was involved in the first ACUE cohort at the Mizzou, and I was one of three campus facilitators. Each week I would read the modules, read entries in the online discussion boards as participants would share questions, concerns, implementation plans, and reflections. Several of the instructors shared concerns that the modules did not address how to adapt these hands-on, active learning, and discussion-based strategies to a large class. However, one professor stood out to me as being open to trying these things, Dr. Parsons.
The irony was that my son, a first-year student, was enrolled in Dr. Parson’s large-enrollment economics course. It seemed as if I had a front row seat and a backstage pass in a teaching and learning performance. My son was enjoying this class, and when he was home visiting, he described several times how effective the instructor was. It took me a little while to realize that the instructor my son talked about was the same ACUE participant who shared the challenges and successes of his lecture-based course with our ACUE learning community.
After the semester, and with permission from both my son and the instructor, I started culling discussion board posts to see the script that had played out during the semester. Dr. Parsons would have faced plenty of challenges, as he was teaching 500 students in back-to-back lectures. Through the ACUE discussions, we can see some of his own implementation and reflection on teaching.
Early in the semester, after the ACUE module on “Leading the First Day,” Dr. Parsons posted this in the discussion board:
Tying into the first unit, I’m planning to implement a group goal-setting/class buddy activity on the first day of class, which should work to enhance both the community-building and goal-setting outcomes in the course. I already include mutual introductions (aided by REEF polling) on the first day, but I plan to enhance this somewhat to allow for more of a reciprocal interview.
After the module on “Planning an Effective Class Session,” Dr. Parson described using small group strategies to engage learners, trying this despite the challenge of teaching in a large lecture hall and trying to still facilitate groups:
At the end of my class today, I had students break into small groups, work together on a one-sentence summary, and then each respond to a REEF polling question with the summary. After class, I looked through the responses (with the help of my head TA), picked the best ones, and posted them as an announcement to Canvas. This seemed to work pretty well, and there were some good responses. I would say it took roughly five minutes to implement.
The module on “Active Learning Techniques” provided further explanation of how Dr. Parson used these strategies:
The primary active learning activity I use in my large lectures is to present frequent questions over the material that are interspersed throughout the lecture and which students answer using the REEF polling system. These questions count for 5% of the student’s overall course grade and are graded on a completion basis. I feel these are valuable for the students because they help to break up the lecture and allow the students to both test their understanding and compare themselves anonymously to the rest of the class. They also provide a nice study aid for the students to refer to as they prepare for exams. I find the questions useful because it allows me to see how well students are understanding the concepts as we go along. They also help to boost attendance.
Midway through the ACUE course, Dr. Parson was reflecting on use of visuals and graphic organizers, and he concluded a lengthy discussion board post with these comments about helping students develop deeper conceptual understanding:
Another thing I try to emphasize in class is that the course is called Principles of Microeconomics, not Memorize a bunch of stuff about economics. Along these lines, I am always trying to link the concepts from the various chapters together so students can see when we’re simply re-applying an old concept to a new problem with perhaps a slight twist, variation, or addition. This module has got me thinking that it might be useful to put together a master concept map for the course that students could refer to, possibly in conjunction with producing their own for comparison. With enough post-it notes and red yarn, I could make my office look like the apartment of a half-crazed investigator in a crime show who is obsessed with tracking down the suspect.
As noted in Dr. Parson’s discussion board posts, students were learning through a variety of strategies to help them engage with the course content and build a community. My son, Justin, often commented about how engaging the course was, especially with these virtual questions and use of small discussion groups during class. In fact, at the end of the semester, Justin, a chemical engineering major, went to his adviser to pick up economics as a second major. Not only did he learn about economics in Dr. Parson’s class, but Justin became passionate about the discipline.
As university professors, we may not feel there is time for additional learning. However, I have seen in my own experiences, with colleagues, and now through a student’s experience, that when we prioritize our own professional learning, and then apply and reflect upon the newfound practices, the benefits are well worth the time and effort. And, quite often the changes we implement do not take more time or negatively impact the amount of content covered—but do provide depth of content, deeper learning and engagement for our students.