The term is in full swing, and the energy level in the classroom seems to have dropped; rather than being generally engaged, many students slump toward disinterest, low motivation, or sometimes general boredom. Welcome to the mid semester slump – and to a blog post for navigating out of the slump with our students.
Read on for ideas from Jane O’Brien and Bill Rozaitis (both Center for Teaching and Learning consultants as well as teachers) about
- formative assessment techniques to learn about student learning,
- test review sessions & sparking new learning strategies,
- synthesizing techniques for deepening learning, and
- peer instruction.
Drawing on the “High Impact, Low Prep Active Learning” workshop they regularly offer, Jane and Bill here examine reasons for “the slump” and provide a variety of teaching strategies recent participants have found valuable in reinvigorating student learning practices.
Jane: No matter how energetically my students begin the semester, it seems by midterm they’re all coughing, sneezing, and looking a little dazed. Over the years I’ve found that this is the time to be deliberate about checking in on how the course is going for them. Colds are inevitable here in MN, but what else might account for their lowered energy?
Bill: Let’s think about some of the reasons why students disengage at mid term. They’re likely feeling overwhelmed by the amount of school work and other responsibilities that have been growing steadily since the beginning of the term; they may be having trouble understanding your material at a deep level; or perhaps the teaching methods you’re using are “not reaching” students.
To figure out what’s going on, you might consider assessing your students’ understanding of material, using any of the number of formative assessment techniques outlined in last week’s blog post about gathering mid-semester feedback from students. One minute papers that ask students to identify what’s unclear to them and why are often effective signposts for adapting your teaching to improve student engagement. It’s important to remember that formative assessment strategies can and should be opportunities for students to monitor their own understanding of material.
To meet this goal, many instructors hold review sessions before a mid term exam. These provide an excellent opportunity to address students’ misunderstanding of material, helping to inform your future teaching while providing an opportunity for students to consider what more they could be doing to learn the material better.
The Practice Exam and Review Session
If you provide a practice exam for students to complete, you could spend class time having students analyze their errors and consider why they made them – and then to construct a plan with specific action steps to guide studying practices. A typical activity might look like this:
- provide a practice test for students to complete outside of class, along with the answer key;
- have them bring the completed exam and key to class;
- break students into pairs or small groups and ask them to locate where they made errors, identify any patterns in the errors they made (e.g., careless math), and brainstorm ways they can eliminate those errors in the future;
- Challenge students to come up with a list of resolutions for what they’ll do different in the future. Their list of “I resolve” statements might be something like this: I resolve to spend more time reading the text book; I resolve to pay more attention to details; I resolve to complete all the homework problems during the term.
For more on the topic of helping students prepare for examinations – and learn from the process, see Barbara Gross Davis’ chapter on allaying students’ test anxiety.
Jane: I agree that it’s important to help student make the best use of midterm test preparation and test taking to consolidate their learning. Sometimes I’ll give points to their efforts to diagnose mistakes on past tests and make changes for future learning.
I think it’s also important at this time in the semester for students to work together on synthesizing and applying what they’re learning. Many of us are aware that Bloom Taxonomy lists applying and synthesizing as Higher Order Thinking Skills that build on using foundational knowledge. Whether learning occurs so sequentially is open for debate, but I’m convinced that focusing students on making meaning of the course concepts and content is crucial. Getting them talking not only provokes peer learning, it also helps increase the energy level. Both necessary at mid-term.
Two Synthesizing Techniques
- Version 1: Provide students with new material and ask them to link the new passages to theories or threshold concepts they have read, heard and talked about in your class so far. By asking them to review the new information to determine which theory it illustrates or concept it is congruent with, you require students to deeply explore what they have already studied to determine where and how and why the new material fits with existing information and understandings. Students answer alone and then discuss in small groups.
- Version 2: Create four flip chart pages, each with its own unique synthesizing question and post each page at different locations around the room. Group students in 3s or 4s and have them discuss the question on one chart, come to a consensus, and then record their thoughts. At a designated time all groups rotate to a new flip chart, review and respond to previous groups and raise new questions. By focusing the four questions on a specific, common-to-all case or scenario, students must draw on all they have studied to analyze and address the discrete components of an overall problem, while also reflecting on how content and coherence of previous commenters.
Bill: I talked earlier about methods for helping students monitor their understanding of course concepts, presentations and materials. Peer instruction is a particularly effective and efficient method for achieving this end in classes of all sizes.
This strategy is beautifully explained and demonstrated by Eric Mazur, physics professor at Harvard, in a brief YouTube video, “From Questions to Concepts.”
To use peer instruction, students should come to class having read the material from which you will build your lecture. During class, you pose multiple choice questions which students answer by drawing on readings and applying lecture points. When a sizable number of students disagree on the correct answer (suggesting misunderstanding of underlying concepts), you ask them to turn to a partner and convince him or her that their answer is indeed the correct one. After a minute or two of discussion, students vote again. Depending on the amount of difficulty students are having with the question, you may decide to spend more time on the concept before moving on.
Professor Mazur uses a classroom response system (“clickers”) to facilitate his peer instruction, but the strategy will also work by having students raise their hands or hold up pieces of paper indicating their answer.
For more on peer instruction, see the “Introduction to the Peer Instructional Method” by the University of Maryland. Or review Larry Michalsen and Michael Sweet article, “The Essential Elements of Team-Based Learning,” which lays out the essential elements of team-based learning.