Posts tagged packback questions

Inspiring Students with Online Discussion

How online discussions helped students understand the importance of class concepts, build connections and improve their writing on exams.

Throughout 12 years of teaching at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Dr. Kathleen West noticed a growing trend among her students. Students who don’t understand why they need to learn about a topic often express a lack of interest in the course and become disengaged. And it wasn’t just in her classes. As the lead academic advisor in the psychology department, Dr. West heard this concern from colleagues who also struggled to keep their students engaged.

“I think students have always worked this way, but there is a huge trend toward verbalizing it nowadays, that they don’t want to learn it if they don’t understand why they need it” explains Dr. West. “ That’s a big challenge for some of our heavy content disciplines because, you’ll get there eventually, in your higher up classes, but there is X amount of material that [students have] to learn first or that connection piece just isn’t going to make sense. Where I struggle as a professor and I know others do too, is how can we have that [connection] happen at this lower level so that they hang with us and get to that higher level content where it’s really going to make sense to them?”

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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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Implementing Technology in College Classrooms

When Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter steps in front of his psychology class at Michigan State University, he sees 175 students interacting with laptops, tablets and smartphones in a carefully constructed academic environment. His courses are filled with Gen Z students; a digital generation of non-traditional students who rely on technology to do research, access their textbooks, complete their homework and communicate with their peers and professors.

Dr. Anderson-Carpenter’s classroom is not unusual for professors teaching in the 21st century. Students are no longer thriving in traditional classrooms which expect them to passively absorb information through lectures. Instead, studies show that teaching trends are moving toward app-based learning, microlearning and mobile learning where students can take ownership of their education and consume information in a familiar way. A study from Barnes and Noble College shows that Gen Z students expect digital learning tools to be utilized on-demand with low barriers to access, to create interactive learning environments.  Since this new generation of college students expect classrooms to use digital learning tools, it’s important for professors to consider ways of implementing technology that will not only intrigue students but bring value to their education.

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