Category For Educators

An Introduction to Packback with Dr. Kathleen West

Packback was joined by Dr. Kathleen West from the University of North Carolina Charlotte to discuss how she uses Packback to improve student critical thinking and writing. She also shares key learnings from her research comparing how different discussion methods impacted student participation and written test exams. This research was presented at NITOP 2019.

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Packback Webinar: Using Technology to Improve Critical Thinking and Engagement

Packback CEO Mike Shannon was joined by Dr. Kathleen West of UNC Charlotte and Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter of Michigan State University. These two psychology professors shared how they’re using technology and positive reinforcement to improve students’ critical thinking skills, engagement and written communication.

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The Value of Discussion

As enrollment and class size increase, professors face more challenges in keeping students engaged. According to a study from the University of Sussex, students in large lectures become passive recipients of information because the fast-paced environment doesn’t give them an opportunity to actively engage with course content. Whether classes are in-person or online, professors are challenged with finding ways to empower students to take ownership over their own learning and relate course material to their lives.

After teaching psychology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for 12 years, Dr. Kathleen West found that students who weren’t able to see how the material related to their other studies were the most disengaged students in the class. These students, who are often preoccupied with electronic devices and don’t utilize time outside of class to study or prepare for the course, can be challenging to reach.

One way Dr. West pulled her students away from their devices and into the classroom was by incorporating peer discussion. This interaction challenged students to explore the course content and formulate their own viewpoints. Dr. West used discussions to tie in relevant course information and help students make connections between their learnings, current events and their lives. Dr. West found that by opening up discussions and giving students an outlet to participate at their own pace, students engaged more in class and showed more of an interest to learn.  

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Building Connections in Large Lectures

It is no secret that class sizes in public and private institutions across the country are growing. In fact, teaching a large lecture or non-traditional classroom is often required to advance along a tenure-track or to earn a promotion. And the rapidly changing classroom structure isn’t slowing down. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2016, undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 28 percent (from 13.2 million to 16.9 million students). Increasing class sizes bring challenges to educators, such as lower student engagement, an increased grading burden, more questions from students and often teaching methods which worked in smaller classes don’t scale to a larger class.

When Dr. Stacey Combes transitioned from a class of 20 students at Harvard University to a class of 400 students at the University of California, Davis, she quickly learned the challenges of connecting with students in an auditorium. In a small class, she had time to build relationships with her students and students were comfortable discussing class topics, debating ideas and asking questions in class. At the University of California, Davis, she wanted to build that same sense of community but knew creating an environment where hundreds of students were excited to share ideas would be challenging.

Dr. Combes’ challenge isn’t unique. More and more professors across the country are tasked with developing a classroom that is engaging for students, teaches core subject matter knowledge and leaves the student with a positive experience. It’s nearly impossible to speak with each student and many students feel uncomfortable sharing their questions or ideas in front of their peers. Often, the same students speak up in class discussions and it becomes hard to know where students are on the class material. One way to overcome these challenges is to focus on creating a collaborative environment where students feel empowered to take ownership of their education.  

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Creating An Active Learning Environment in College Classrooms

College enrollment for the 2018 fall academic term in the United States is expected to hit more than 20 million students according to a report from Statista. The rapid enrollment growth is putting a burden directly on professors to innovate in overcrowded lecture halls and meet the needs of Gen Z students.

These overcrowded lectures, where devices can be as much of a distraction as they are a tool, are a challenging setting to engage students. But students who don’t actively engage often lose interest in material and become less willing to apply themselves on assignments and exams. These students are also less likely to have a positive perception of their learning experience, which can be reflected in semester evaluations.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple addition or change in class structure that will empower students and encourage them to participate. However, one popular method professors in top colleges and universities are successfully incorporating is active learning. In fact, many different active learning techniques can be tailored to fit any classroom and can lead to increased engagement and a better understanding of class materials.

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