(image from pxfuel.com)

Reflection assignments as an active learning strategy are commonly seen in humanities courses. The purpose of this writing is to share an example of how simple reflection activities can make a huge impact in two math courses.

MTH 251 Differential Calculus covers five units, with one exam for each unit, counting 14% of the final grade. Before students attempt to take the unit exam, they are assigned to read textbook readings, watch instructor-created lecture videos, work on Canvas-based homework assignment and Adaptive Learning based practice assignments in Knewton Lab online platform. After assignment due date expires, students are assigned to complete a weekly written homework reflection. The weekly homework and the weekly homework reflection together count for 14% of final grade in this course, weighing the same as each of the unit exams.

MTH 341 Linear Algebra I has ten weekly modules. Each week, students  read textbook assigned readings, watch lecture videos created by the instructor (Dr.   ), complete post-reading questions in quiz format, work on graded group discussion questions to solve math problems in small groups, complete written homework individually, and in the following week, complete a written homework response activity individually in discussion format.

The written homework reflection in MATH 251 and the written homework response in MATH 341 are both reflection activities designed to optimize student learning success, through comparing their own homework solutions with answer keys and evaluate whether they did it correctly or incorrectly and analyze where they did it wrong and how to get it right. The purpose of such weekly reflection is to help students develop meta-cognitive skills related to their learning. By looking back at students’ own work and learning from their mistakes, they develop an understanding of what is the proper way to solve a problem and what is not the proper way for solving a particular math problem. It also prompts students to plan for proper action in the future and exercises students’ executive functioning skills (CAST, 2018).

Here is what the instructions for the weekly reflection look like:
1. First answer the weekly prompt: Reflecting on the Unit 1 module, which topics did you struggle with the most?
2. Download the written homework solutions PDF: (Solution for each written homework in pdf format is attached here.)
3. Look over the solutions and compare to your submitted homework. Look for any problems where your solution differs from the posted solution.

• If your solutions had one or more incorrect problems then in the discussion board please discuss the following:
• why you struggled with certain problems
• why each solution makes sense now
• what your misunderstanding was
• what will you do in the future when solving problems similar to these?
• what did you learn by making a mistake?
• what did you learn from looking at the solutions?
• If you are still confused about a problem, ask a question. DO NOT simply list which problems you got wrong.
• If your solutions are all correct then in the discussion board please discuss the problem that you found the most challenging. Describe what specific tasks helped you to complete that problem. Be as detailed as you can about your solution process.

Students not only posted their own reflections, but they also comment on or answer other students’ reflections as well. Additionally, the instructor and the four TAs in the course responded actively to students’ reflections, which makes the reflection more valuable since students get encouragement, praises, or corrections from the instructor and teaching assistants. Again, feedback from experts is critical in the success of a reflection activity (Vandenbussche, 2018)

Image 1: How reflection usually looks like and How reflection should look like (Image Source)

Many students were reflecting on what they did wrong and asked for help. Some were reflecting on their time management in completing the homework assignments. And we were glad to see students completing homework, evaluating their own work, analyzing where they did wrong, and planning for future improvement. Overall, the purpose of this assignment is accomplished!

(Image by Dave_Here)

A great benefit that comes from these weekly reflection activities is increased or sustained homework completion rate. For MTH 251 winter 2021 week 1 to week 7, over 85% of students completed the weekly homework and the reflection activity on average. For MTH 341 Fall 20 week 1 to week 7, over 90% of students on average completed the weekly homework and the reflection assignments. All math teachers love to see their students practice with homework assignments before they attempt to take the quizzes or exams! And evidence-based research tells us that deliberate practice with targeted feedback promotes mastery learning (Ambrose et al., 2010).

So, if it works in math courses, it will work in Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Engineering and other STEM courses too! If you’re interested in implementing this technique in your teaching and have questions about setting it up, feel free to contact us. We’d love to help you figure out the easiest way to set it up in your course.

References

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovettt, M.C. , Norman, M.K., & The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

CAST. (2018). UDL Guidelines. Retrieved from https://udlguidelines.cast.org/

Vandenbussche, B. (2018). Reflecting for learning. Retrieved from https://educationaltoolsportal.eu/en/tools-for-learning/reflecting-learning

By Susan Fein, Instructional Designer, susan.fein@oregonstate.edu

In my role as an instructional designer, the faculty I work with are often looking for ways to increase student engagement and add a “wow” factor to their online course. One way to do that is to add or increase active learning practices.

Active learning requires students to do something and think about what they are doing, rather than simply listening, as with a passive-learning lecture (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning brings positive and lasting outcomes to students, including better retention and grasp of concepts, and is particularly evident when students work together to develop solutions (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

# Tackling Discussions

In 2019, I worked with an instructor developing a biochemistry/biophysics course for Ecampus. The instructor loved the peer-to-peer interaction intended for discussions, but was discouraged by the often lackluster exchange commonly demonstrated in the posts. She wanted to liven up these conversations, not only to increase the strength of the community but also to have an impact on the value of the learning that took place.

Enter knowledge boards! With a simple but creative retooling of the predictable initial-post-and-two-replies format, the instructor found a way to reimagine the often mundane discussion board and transform it into a lively and highly engaging conversation and exchange of knowledge.

How did she do this? Rather than compel all students to respond to a narrow or artificially-constructed prompt, the instructor instead posted several relevant topics or short questions extracted from the concepts presented during that week’s lectures and readings. Topics might be a single word or a short phrase, and the questions were tightly focused and direct.

# Choice and Agency

From this list of 5 to 10 conversation starters that give breadth to the topics, the students can choose which they want to respond to, often selecting what’s of greatest interest to them. These posts could be anything related to the topic or question, so students are free to approach from any perspective or direction.

The instructor found that the students more freely contributed ideas, insights, understandings, questions, confusion, and commentary. They were encouraged to ask questions of each other to delve into significant points. Students could engage in as many conversations as desired, at their discretion. As a result, they tended to be more actively involved, not only with the content and concepts from that week’s materials, but also with each other, producing a strong community of inquiry.

This simple change transformed the tired and (dare I say it?) potentially boring weekly discussion into a meaningful opportunity for a lively and valuable knowledge exchange. The instructor explained that students also report that this knowledge board becomes a study guide, summarizing multiple approaches and insightful content they use for studying, so many revisit the posts even after that week is over as a way to review.

# But Wait…There’s More!

The instructor didn’t stop at discussions in her pursuit of increased engagement and active learning. Her next “trick” was to evaluate how the assessments, especially homework problems, were presented.

A typical format in many Ecampus courses is to have students complete homework assignments individually, and these are generally graded on the correctness of the answers. But once again, this instructor redesigned a conventional activity by applying principles of active learning and collaborative pedagogy to improve learning outcomes.

In the new version, students first answer and submit solutions to the homework individually, and this initial phase is graded on proper application of concepts, rather than on the correctness of the answer. Next, students work together in small groups of 3 or 4 to discuss the same set of problems and, as a group, arrive at consensus of the correct answers.

The active learning “magic” occurs during this critical second phase. If one student is confident about an answer, they present evidence from the lectures and readings to persuade their peers. And when a student is not certain that they correctly grasped the concepts, they discuss the problem and relevant principles, learning from each other through this review, hearing different perspectives and interpretations of the materials. It is through these vital peer-to-peer interactions that the active learning takes place.

As the last phase of the activity, the group submits their answers, which are graded for correctness.

This reshaping of a classic homework activity results in deeper levels of understanding and stronger knowledge retention (Weimer, 2012). And there’s an added benefit for the instructor, too. Since there are fewer papers to grade, formatting homework as a group submission means extra time to offer more and better feedback than would be feasible when grading each student individually. A win-win bonus!

# Benefits of Active Learning

These are just two simple but ingenious ways to reformat classic forms of interaction and assessment.

Do you have an idea of how you can alter an activity in your course to make it more interesting and engaging? If you sense that your online course could use a boost, consider incorporating more active learning principles to add the extra oomph that could transform your teaching content from mundane to magical!

So let’s close this post in true active learning style and take a moment to reflect. What kinds of active learning practices have you tried in your course? How did those go? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, so please share in comments.

# References

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom (Vol. Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice. AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7.

Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/

# Active Learning: What Does the Research Show?

We often hear about new approaches in teaching, and some can take on near-mythical status. That might be the case for active learning. It’s been widely touted as the “most effective” pedagogical approach, but unless you have time to dig through the research, it may not be easy to determine if this trend is applicable – or beneficial – to your teaching and discipline.

So what does the research say about active learning? This article provides a brief summary of research results for active learning applied in STEM subjects.

# Why Use Active Learning?

Before we discuss why active learning is beneficial, let’s clarify exactly what active learning is. As opposed to passive learning, such as listening to a traditional lecture, active learning requires students to do something and think about what they are doing (Bonwell & Eison, 1991).

Much research supports the power and benefits of active learning. Students have better retention and understanding when they are actively involved in the learning process (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Active engagement promotes higher order thinking, since it often requires students to evaluate, synthesize, and analyze information. Research indicates that students develop strong connections, apply concepts to authentic scenarios, and dive deeply into the content, often discovering an unexpected level of engagement that is exciting and stimulating (Nelson, 2002).

# Does Active Learning Produce Better Outcomes in STEM?

Research indicates the answer is “yes!” In an introductory physics course, Harvard professor Eric Mazur (2009) found that his students were not able to answer fundamental physics scenarios or grasp basic concepts from traditional lectures. As a result, he stopped lecturing and has become an outspoken champion for active learning.

An organic chemistry class adopted active learning, resulting in significantly higher grades for students in the active classroom than in the control group, with the greatest effect coming from low-achieving students (Cormier and Voisard, 2018). In an introductory undergraduate physics course, two large student groups were compared. The active learning section showed greater attendance, more engagement, and more than double the achievement on an exam (Deslauriers, Schelew and Weiman, 2011).

In 2004, a skeptical Michael Prince (2004) researched the then-current literature on active learning to determine whether it offered consideration for engineering. He found that many active learning recommendations directly conflicted with historical engineering teaching practices. Methods like breaking lectures into small, topic-specific segments, interspersing lecture with discussion, using problem-based scenarios, or grouping students for collaborative learning were uncommon. Ultimately, Prince reluctantly concluded that the bulk of research evidence indicated that these types of teaching methods might foster better retention and enhance critical thinking.

# What About Non-STEM Classes?

Although these findings are from research in STEM disciplines, active learning contributes to better grades, more engagement, increased student satisfaction and better retention in any topic (Allen-Ramdial & Campbell, 2014). Active learning tends to increase involvement for all students, not just those already motivated to learn. Peer-to-peer collaboration helps students solve problems and better understand more complex content (Vaughan et al., 2014). Research indicates that students learn more when they actively participate in their education and are asked to think about and apply their learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

# Try It Yourself!

The articles cited in this post offer a number of easy-to-implement active learning suggestions that are effective in ether a face-to-face or online classroom. Give one or two a try and see if your students are more engaged in the learning  process.

• Offer opportunities for students to practice and examine concepts with peers, such as through debates.
• Break lectures into small, granular topics and intersperse with questions or problem-solving activities based on real-world applications. Video technologies can easily accommodate this approach for online learning.
• Structure quizzes or other activities to give immediate feedback. Answer keys and auto-graded assessments are available as a feature in virtually any learning management system.
• Consider “flipping” the classroom by asking students to read or watch lecture videos before in-person class sessions.
• Design activities that encourage students to work in small groups or collaborate with others.
• Add a personal reflection component to help students uncover new ideas or insights.

Although no single definitive study has yet been published to unequivocally prove the efficacy of active learning, the body of evidence from many studies forms a compelling argument that it is does offer significant benefits (Weimer, 2012). Give it a try and see how active learning works in your discipline.

Susan Fein, Ecampus Instructional Designer | susan.fein@oregonstate.edu

# References

• Allen-Ramdial, S.-A. A., & Campbell, A. G. (2014, July). Reimagining the Pipeline: Advancing STEM Diversity, Persistence, and Success. BioScience, 64(7), 612-618.
• Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom (Vol. Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
• Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice. AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7.
• Cormier, C., & Voisard, B. (2018, January). Flipped Classroom in Organic Chemistry Has Significant Effect on Students’ Grades. Frontiers in ICT, 4, 30. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fict.2017.00030
• Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011, May). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332, 862-864.
• Mazur, E. (2009, January 2). Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323(5910), 50-51. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20177113
• Nelson, G. D. (2002). Science for All Americans. New Directions for Higher Education, 119(Fall), 29-32.
• Prince, M. (2004, July). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 223-231.
• Vaughan, N., LeBlanc, A., Zimmer, J., Naested, I., Nickel, J., Sikora, S., . . . O’Connor, K. (2014). To Be or Not To Be. In A. G. Picciano, C. D. Dziuban, & C. R. Graham (Eds.), Blended Learning Research Perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 127-144). Routledge.
• Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/

# Photo Credits

Auditorium – Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash
Engagement – Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Hands – Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Library – Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash
Contemplation – Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash