Engaged Learning – My Grand Experiment Part II

A while ago I wrote about my decision to experiment with the use of engaged-learning practices in my third year business classes (see Engaged Learning – My Grand Experiment Part I). Time to tell you the results.

Overall, I’m happy with how it worked out, though it wasn’t a clear win on every parameter. Let me tell you about the disappointments and the successes.

The Disappointments

Grades

To see how teaching style impacted grades, I compared class averages from last year, where I taught the same courses using traditional, lecture-based teaching, to this year, where I used engaged learning. Let’s see how my class averages differed.

Traditional, lecture-based teaching

Engaged learning

68%

67%

My conclusion from this is a resounding

There was no real difference in class average between teaching styles. My unimpressed-ness is compounded when I dig into the grade distribution. Below I compare the proportion of students earning each letter grade in a class run with traditional lectures versus engaged learning.

The good news is the proportion of students earning an A almost doubled. But it also looks like the B population has been gutted. Some of the Bs shifted towards an A, but the majority shifted towards a C.

So, at the end of the day my experience doesn’t allow me to claim engaged learning is a gateway to producing students with higher grades.

What do students think?

As I wrote in Part I of this topic, I had some concerns about engaged learning. These included (i) an inability to cover all the material in class. Consequently, (ii) students need to take ownership of their education and learn some material independently. I was worried some students may not be predisposed to do this.

Our school gives students the opportunity to complete surveys on their teachers that are forwarded to me at semester’s end. I reviewed my survey results in the classes I tried engaged learning in to see what feedback I got. I discovered some of my concerns were founded. Here’s a sample of the feedback.

“… there’s simply too much course material to cover in one 3 hour/week time slot, so we’re not able to learn it all properly.”

“Some content not covered in class is on the exams. Brad should go over at least one of each type of question so that students can be better prepared. Also, at times Brad explains content vaguely and doesn’t go into detail.”

“Explain some topics more in depth … Cover all content that will be on the exam …”

“The expectations and workload are a little bit unreasonable. I think it would be more beneficial to either do less assignments and mark very critically or do all the assignments and mark more leniently. It’s not fair to do both because of students time constraints.”

So, not everyone was a fan. But, there were some definite bright spots to engaged learning.

Successes

Amazing class discussions

As mentioned in Part I, class time in an engaged learning environment is devoted to student-based activities rather than teacher-based lectures. As I walked around the room during these activities, I was amazed at the depth and richness of the conversations my students were having amongst themselves.

That’s right, kid. Amazed.

To me, this is the biggest selling point of engaged learning. The students engaged with the material to a level I’d never seen before. Rather than listening to me repeat the definition of a term, they were debating its meaning. Rather than listening to me say when to use which model or framework, they were debating themselves the usefulness of the frameworks being taught. Rather than watching me work through problems on the board, they were teaching themselves and helping one another to master problems.

The students got into the material to a level that is not possible in a traditional lecture. This leads into an interesting back-story behind the final grades.

Story behind the grades

Due to limited class time, I had students learn material I judged to be “basic” on their own time. Class time was devoted to working through the most difficult elements. Consequently, I felt comfortable making my exam much more challenging. Rather than basic questions, I gave them realistic, challenging problems they are likely to face in the workplace.

Looking at the class averages above, students were able to handle it. Although it did push more Bs down to Cs it did not impact the overall fail rate.

So, even though the grades don’t show it I feel these students know the material deeper and can handle tougher questions on the subject.

Student feedback

Although some students took issue with this style of teaching, the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. On almost every parameter tested in the student survey I scored above departmental norms. The two exceptions were on the points “allows enough time to cover topics…” as well as “evaluates student performance with assignments related to course objectives” in which my score equaled department norms.

Here’s some of the highlights of the feedback received.

“I really enjoy being able to collaborate with other students when doing in class exercises.”

“Engaging, develops a good teaching atmosphere, collaborative”

“Really enthusiastic – makes class interesting and interactive”

“One of the best and engaging learning environment [I’ve] been [in].”

At the end of the semester, I was impressed with the depth with which I was able to explore course content with the class. Moreover, I was impressed with how eager students were to engage with the material when given a chance to do so. They want to learn – they want to take an active part in their education – and engaged learning allows them to do so. For these reasons, I’m going to continue my use of engaged learning in the courses I teach.

2 thoughts on “Engaged Learning – My Grand Experiment Part II

Add yours

  1. As a current student in your class, I am a HUGE fan of your “engaged learning” teaching practices. Being in second year university, I’ve had more than my share of boring teachers that make no effort to make the classes interactive or interesting whatsoever. In my eyes, your classes are so much more interesting that I actually learn more. Sure, the workload may be more outside of class time – but that actually causes students to learn more if they’re willing to put their minds to it. Furthermore, it allows them to explore and learn methods of research and work that employers seek most – being self-motivated, able to work with minimal supervision, and able to get results under those conditions (even if there is a learning curve involved).

    Speaking of working hard, currently I work 21 hours a week, have three classes (which has been my situation for three semesters), and live in my own apartment with no help from my parents (other than tuition, which I am grateful for!). Even with everything else on the go, I dedicated a lot of time to a recent research assignment I did for your class, which I learned a lot from – and, funny enough, got a good grade (correlation between in-depth research and knowledge, and good grades? So strange…)! All those who don’t like engaged learning can take that!

    I think you’re really doing students a BIG favour with your teaching methods. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man a fish and feed him for a lifetime.”

    Thanks for the insightful post, Brad!

    Like

    1. Hey, glad you’re getting something out of the class! You make me think I should write a future blog post on hard working today’s students actually are (say, for example, working 21 hours a week with 3 courses …).

      Like

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