Incorporating In-Class Activities to Strengthen Understanding of Class Concepts

I have learned, both first-hand and by observing my classrooms, that students learn more when they actively engage with class material. When I first began teaching I noticed that students often learned more in the project-focused lab I taught (for which I barely lectured at all) compared to my lecture-only course. In the lab, students had to design their own research studies and test other students in the class in order to collect data that they then analyzed together. I observed that students were personally invested in the activities, were actively engaging with and learning from their peers, and had an easier time targeting areas or steps they didn’t understand.

Given my observations, I began to slowly incorporate in-class activities into my introductory neuroscience lecture course and I immediately saw a shift in student excitement, exam grades and quality of class discussions.

An effective problem-oriented class activity asks students to apply course concepts to novel problems, requires students to provide a rationale for their solutions, and promotes working together in small groups. This can facilitate learning in the following ways:

1. Students become active instead of passive learners

This means that students are involved and take an active role in their own learning. Active learning develops critical thinking skills by utilizing course content rather than passively acquiring it. By providing a problem-centered task, it provides an entry-point for engagement and further exploration. We want to teach students not only the class subject matter, but we also want to develop critical thinking skills to effectively interact with the subject matter. Courses that are purely lecture-based thus only provide the subject matter, but do not require students to critically engage with it.

2. Students have to provide an argument for their solution

By providing a problem-based task and asking students to formulate and justify their own ideas, we are helping them develop important critical thinking skills. Not only that, the activity can at the same time help clarify a content-specific problem that many students have a difficult time understanding. For example, I noticed that students had a difficult time understanding the various brain-slice types in my neuroscience course, so I found a video illustrating all the different types and developed a task that involved estimating the brain area and slice type being shown in various images. As a team, students had to describe the features they saw and justify their answers. Students were not graded on being correct, but instead shared with the class why they thought a specific brain image was from a certain brain location. The goal of the task was not to get the ‘right answer’ but to develop critical thinking. In addition, in order to formulate their own ideas and justifications, students tie new material to previously acquired knowledge and personal experiences. This process helps students integrate course content with previously learned concepts to promote learning.

3. Working in small groups promotes participation and understanding

Studies support that students often learn more from peers compared to those with more advanced knowledge. This is in part because peers struggle with similar confusions and can often help clarify concepts more effectively than teachers. In addition, working in groups helps develop comfort as well as friendships among students, which can often increase participation for shy or quiet students. Often times, small group work will contribute to more productive and energizing class discussions, as students are more comfortable with one another (as well as the class concepts being discussed).

Difficulties I experienced when integrating tasks into the lecture class include pinpointing what class concepts students find most challenging, and finding the time and creativity to develop activities that capture and clarify these concepts. But tasks can be developed and integrated slowly over several semesters, and you can monitor student responses to further tweak the assignments. In addition, to decrease the focus on getting the ‘right’ answer, assignment completion is calculated into student participation grades and I often incorporate similar problems on exams.

Assignments can be written (e.g., do you agree/disagree with a certain statement, explain your position), task-oriented (e.g., solve the following problem and justify each step) or can involve games (e.g., jeopardy). You can get as creative as you want! In fact, our next workshop titled ‘The Creative Classroom’ will focus more on developing fun in-class tasks that promote active learning, critical thinking and collaboration. Join us on Tuesday December 9th at 1pm in Namm 1105 to learn more.