Workshop Recap: The Creative Classroom (12/10)

Last week we wrapped up the semester with a workshop on using non-traditional activities in the classroom to incorporate more active learning into our courses – and to have more fun! If you missed the workshop, read on to find out what we talked about, and check out the PowerPoint Slides and Handout.

WAC Fellow Emily Crandall and I started off with an active learning game that encourages student interaction: “The Snowball” (or, as WAC Coordinator Rebecca Devers likes to call it, “The Hungry Hungry Hippo” activity). Each person gets a piece of paper with a question at the top – here, “What is one concern you have about incorporating non-traditional (i.e. not lecture/discussion) activities into your classroom?” After writing down a response, each person crumples up the paper and throws it to the front of the room, which just about guarantees some looks of amazement and some hilarity when people’s aim goes astray. After collecting and redistributing the papers, each person opens up the one they’ve been given and some are read aloud. Then each person writes a response to the concern expressed on their paper. The papers are crumpled, thrown, and redistributed again, and the answers are discussed. This activity is a great way to loosen students up and get them interacting, in addition to providing a way for them to raise questions anonymously, without feeling self-conscious.


I then talked about active learning, which is an¬†idea underpinning not just the workshop, but the WAC philosophy as a whole. Active learning, which can be defined as “any instructional method that engages students in the learning process” (Prince 2004), is typically juxtaposed with more traditional passive absorption of information in a lecture format. Of course, we all lecture sometimes, but incorporating active learning has a lot of benefits for your students and for you as a professor. Research shows that students learn better when they engage in a variety of activities (listening, talking, writing, etc); what’s more, having fun actually increases attentiveness, which in turn makes higher-level learning and deeper connections more likely. As a professor, coming up with innovative and engaging student activities can improve your teaching portfolio or even result in a publication in a pedagogy journal.

Moving on to no-tech activities, we focused on small group activities. Most of us have used small groups at some point in our classrooms, but it’s easy for them to feel like a waste of time. We gave some examples of fun and productive small group activities (see the handout for details), and then Emily described ways to make them more effective. For example, it’s a good idea to require groups to generate a written product that they will have to present, so that group conversations stay on track. Ask students to persuade the class when they present those written products, rather than simply summarize. And research shows that groups of 5-6 produce the most conducive environment for interactive learning.

Using multimedia inside or outside the classroom also offer exciting ways to enliven¬†lessons¬†and promote more engaged learning. This can be as simple as showing a video clip¬†and asking students to write for a few minutes in response before discussing¬†those responses in class – a great way to incorporate low-stakes writing into the classroom. Or you can get a little fancier with only minimal extra effort, trying out some instant feedback techniques. Instant feedback can be used to gauge student comprehension, gather questions, provoke discussion, or even take attendance. We demonstrated¬†an instant poll in the workshop¬†using, a great resource that lets you set up a multiple-choice or free-response poll, have your students respond via cell phone or laptop, and display the results instantly as they come in. Our poll¬†–¬†based on a question WAC Fellow Wilson uses in her Intro to Sociology classes – started off with a strong lead for Beyonce’s alienation, but a late surge of “Who is Karl Marx?” responses made for a close finish.

Screenshot 2015-12-14 12.11.17

Clickers, which some departments have (and if not, you can use technology fee money to help buy them), can be used for similar purposes, or you can even set up a hashtag for your class and have students tweet questions or responses for instant in-class feedback.

Finally, there are some great ways to use technology outside the classroom. OpenLab is a City Tech resource for setting up a course website, where you can post a dynamic course syllabus, run a class blog, or even create a multimedia class project, like this English/Communications class did. They even offer workshops to get you started; you can find schedules on their website.

Emily showed the workshop her own class blog (which is private, so no link here – but you can see another WAC Fellow’s class blog here as an example) and talked about the ways to use a blog and the benefits of doing so. It’s a great place to practice low-stakes writing; you can ask students to post once a week before class to ensure that they come to class prepared, but also to promote student interaction online. Requiring students to comment on each other’s posts – or offering extra credit for doing so – can generate discussions that you can continue in class. This is particularly useful¬†for students who might feel¬†intimidated or shy in class; it gives them a different way to participate, and it also can¬†give them the confidence to then do so in the classroom after trying it out online. By asking students to post several hours before class, you can¬†read their responses beforehand, which lets you¬†identify and better address the concepts or issues¬†students were most interested in or confused by.

The tasks you assign for blog posts could be the same each week, or you could change it up and use it as a scaffolding tool, according to course objectives. You could ask them to¬†summarize and analyze of the week’s readings, identify a thesis or evidence, argue for or against the author’s position, connect the readings to personal experience, explain key concepts in plain English, or generate discussion questions. Be sure to give specific tasks for posting comments on other’s blog posts, too!

To wrap it up, Emily talked about a couple of ways¬†to tie all of these ideas together. Of course, you certainly don’t have to incorporate everything into the same class, but if you’re wondering how you’re going to have time to use¬†any of them, thinking about a flipped classroom model could be useful. In the flipped classroom, activities we typically do in class – primarily lecture – are done outside (via existing video content you find, such as TED talks or documentaries, or lectures you record of yourself), and activities typically done outside of class – the application of the lecture material – are done in class. So you essentially make room for in-class activities by shifting lectures out.

That’s it for this semester, but we’ll be back in the spring with several workshops for students, a faculty workshop on applying WAC principles with ESL students in the classroom, and a symposium in May to present all writing certification participants’ work from the year. Keep an eye out for the final schedule!

Technology in the Classroom

Our last faculty workshop of the semester is approaching, where we will be discussing strategies for implementing more creativity in the classroom. An aspect of this workshop involves the use of technology. But whether and how to use technology in the classroom is certainly not a settled debate.

There are broad¬†disagreements over whether any sort of active learning (including technology) detracts from student development of the comprehension and reasoning skills required to¬†digest a lecture. There are also disagreements about the extent to which technology can effectively be used to deliver course content. In particular, the trend toward¬†“flipping the classroom” is largely premised upon taking¬†advantage of available technologies for the explicit purpose of increasing student engagement with course materials. In a flipped classroom, lectures are delivered electronically outside of class, and in-class time is reserved for student synthesis, application, and discussion. Some faculty have even attempted the flip in large lecture hall situations, encouraging student accountability for completing required readings. Proponents of the flipped classroom model have developed many different types of resources for using technology outside the classroom in order to facilitate more active learning before, after, and during class. Ted-ed is one example.

But what about technology in the classroom itself? This can take either the form of technology used by the instructor (e.g. powerpoint, video clips), or technology used by the students, namely laptops. There are many elements to consider when deciding whether to allow students to use laptops. On one hand, research suggests that students demonstrate better understanding of concepts and applications when they take notes by hand. On the other hand, permitting the use of technology may foster a more inclusive learning environment, allowing for more alternatives to the traditional lecture. Chris Buddle at McGill, for example, allows students to use the internet to fact check him during class, which often leads to spontaneous discussions and new avenues for student engagement. It can also expand accessibility for students who require accommodations for varying sorts of disabilities.

WAC philosophy and pedagogy offers a robust defense of active learning. That said, it can be overwhelming to try and integrate so many new and different strategies and resources into a classroom. It may certainly be the case that using technology in new ways does not immediately yield the expected outcome. That need not be a reason, however, to shy away from it. It does not mean that you have to drastically change your curriculum to make it more fun or accessible. But it does mean that there may be ways to deepen student engagement with both your course, and with the pursuit of knowledge more broadly, which might fall outside the traditional lecture format, and may involve writing and reading in more creative styles and venues.

Missed our creative classroom workshop?

We had a great workshop today on active learning, technology, and innovative ideas to use in the classroom, thanks to all who attended. If you missed it, be sure to check our workshops page for the PowerPoint Presentation and Handout, full of excellent sources and ideas to implement in your classroom. Questions? Contact Pam or Jake, the workshop leaders, who can help you out.