Engaged Learning – My Grand Experiment Part I

I discovered the etymology of the word ‘lecture’ is “to read”. It hails from when universities first formed in the middle ages, before printing presses made textbooks widely available. The lecturer would recite the university’s copy of the textbook during class while students took notes.

Today’s university bookstore lines are an improvement … barely

Since students can now buy their own textbooks, how do teachers spend their class time?  Surprisingly, little has changed.

“Ok, class, this slide summarizes all the bold words on page 372.”

This got me thinking. If the information I am conveying as a teacher is available in a book, can I not, then, be replaced by a $120 text? Is simply presenting information students can easily read about the best use of class time?

Such conundrums led me to the discovery of “engaged learning”, where students take responsibility for their own learning process. Rather than review material already in the text, the teacher uses the class to create an environment where students explore and apply the concepts they have read about. Students actively work through the material rather than passively listening about it.

I found this podcast to be a good introduction to engaged learning.

I wondered whether engaged learning was a way to bring relevancy to my lectures.  So, I decided to try it in my third-year operations management class.

How am I applying engaged learning?

There are three layers of learning

1. Acquire Information

The student performs this by completing assigned reading & homework. Since I’m not reviewing the reading in class, it’s essential students complete this beforehand, otherwise the class will have little value. Now, I know what you’re thinking.

I have what my students refer to as a “dirty trick” to get them to learn the material beforehand. Every class begins with a short multiple choice quiz on the assigned reading.  I allow students to bring in self-prepared notes. This gives them an incentive to complete the reading, think about what’s important and then summarize it in their own lecture notes.

2.  Guided Exploration of Concepts & Tools

This happens in class. Often I’ll start with a brief introduction of the topic, and then we’ll break into any combination of:

  • Working through problems
  • Exploring how the course relates to current events
  • Case analysis
  • Reviewing difficult concepts

Often I’ll ask them to start an activity individually, and then have them form groups to discuss. After this I’ll debrief the activity as a class.  I have found excellent references supporting use of in-class group work here and here.

During these activities I walk around the class listening to conversations, adding my comments, re-directing their discussion away from chit-chat and answering questions. This allows me to work one-on-one with students, and lets me see where stumbling blocks are. Once we’re discussing the activity as a class, I moderate the discussion to ensure key learning points are brought forth.

This reverses traditional classroom dynamics.  Rather than the teacher actively conveying information while students passively listen, the students are active.

3. Independent Exploration of Concepts and Tools

Students perform this outside the classroom. I have a variety of term projects that provide students opportunities to build on their learning. These include:

  • Researching current issues related to the course
  • Auditing companies to see how they apply course concepts
  • Designing their own operating plans from scratch

Challenges I expect

Student push-back

“I want YOU to teach ME.” After years of traditional classes, many students expect to sit back while teachers talk. If the teacher’s not talking, they’re not doing their job. Tied to this are feelings of uncertainty. If the teacher’s talking and has points on a slide, then that material must be important. If the teacher’s not talking and there are no slides, some students may feel unsure of what they’re supposed to learn.

Additionally, engaged learning pushes the student to work harder before and during classes than in traditional settings, which may not be well received. In the podcast I linked to above, a teacher mentioned he’s had negative feedback on evaluations where students complained they had to “think too hard”.

Less material covered

I was reflecting on a class I ran last week and realized I only covered two problem types over the three hours.  Sure, they were very difficult problems. But the assigned reading covered dozens of different issues. I covered two.

Breadth of coverage is a casualty of engaged learning. But, meaningfully exploring a few topics has more value than briefly dusting over many.

Will students take ownership of their learning?

I call this the “you-didn’t-discuss-this-part-of-the-text-so-it’s-not-fair-to-test-me-on-it” syndrome.

I’ve been told I’m bad at naming things

Even though I assigned the chapter as reading, have practice questions on the subject, and explicitly stated all material covered in any format in the course is fair game for examination, if a word does not pass through my mouth, students’ perceive that it must not be important.

Students need to realize that the three hours a week I have in class is not sufficient to pass on the knowledge they require to complete a bachelor program.  The class component is only a small part of the learning process – they need to take ownership of the entire process to be successful. I hope engaged learning is the way to inspire them to this.

Click here to see the results of my grand experiment.

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