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Engaging Students with Active Learning

If you want to increase student interest in your class, add "extreme" to its title. That strategy worked for University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) professor Perry Samson, who more than doubled the number of students attending his meteorology class, "Weather and Climate," by renaming it "Extreme Weather." But if your goal is to improve student outcomes, Samson says, employ active learning techniques, an approach that improved examination performance among his students by just under half a standard deviation.

"We went from about 40 students to more than 200," Samson told attendees at the recent CT Forum conference in Long Beach, CA. "When I suddenly had that many students in the room, I was challenged to understand what they don't understand. And being a geek, I started writing my own software to do it."

Samson, who is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at Michigan in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences and School of Information, is also an entrepreneur. He's a co-founder of The Weather Underground, a popular weather site, and the creator of the LectureTools active learning platform.

The original version of LectureTools was developed to make large, introductory classes seem smaller and less intimidating to new instructors, Samson told Campus Technology. His strategy was to connect with students through their laptops, tablets and smartphones during lectures on a Web-based, active learning platform. One of the most important features of the platform is its ability to provide real-time feedback from students. Samson described it as a TLC system—total lecture capture.

"It's not just video," he said. "We wanted to capture everything that a student was doing, the notes they were taking, how they were answering questions during class, the questions they were asking me during class. All of these things would be recorded, along with the LMS information, and the other tools the students might use."

Samson's own version of active learning goes well beyond software. "In five days I'll be taking my student out in the field to chase tornadoes," he said. "When a tornado is bearing down on you, you want to know everything there is to know about the situation in real time. I wanted to find a way to bring that energy back to the classroom, to involve students in the process in these large lecture halls."

Samson's conclusions about active learning are backed up by a growing number of studies. Samson cited a 2014 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ("Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics"), which presented the results of analysis of 225 studies that examined the effects of active-learning strategies on exam scores in STEM courses. The analysts found that students enrolled in STEM courses that included active learning earned exam scores that were 6 percent higher than the exam scores of students in lecture courses with no active learning. They also found that students in classes with no active learning were 1.5 more likely to fail course exams.

"I want to be able to look at this data and predict which students I need to worry about," Samson said. "I want to be able to build a predictive scheme, just like I do for the weather, and forecast which students to worry about."

Samson's own active learning activities have led him to a number of conclusions. He has found that a strong relationship exists between active learning participation and student outcomes. The nature of active learning participation is related to the students' incoming GPAs. Students with different incoming GPAs tend to participate in markedly different ways in the blended course. Lower GPA students tended to participate in questions less often, took five times fewer notes, and were more likely to participate in class remotely than they were to come to class physically.

Samson also noted that the LMS plays a much less central role in an active learning environment. "What's needed here is a new set of technologies that promote active learning in the classroom," he said. "The LMS is still needed, because it provides the grade book, assignments, and collaboration potential. But it doesn't provide tools that can be used during class time. It's time to get over the LMS."

LectureTools was acquired in 2012 by ed tech company Echo360 and integrated into that company's lecture capture and blended learning platform. During his talk, Samson demonstrated the newly released Echo360 Active Learning Platform, which the company describes as a kind of GPS for education. And he offered an example of the type of immediate feedback the system provides.

"I asked students on the first day, how many of you are comfortable asking a question verbally in class?" Samson said. "You can probably guess the results: half the male students were comfortable, but only 25% of female students were. Just by teaching in the traditional way, I'd set up an uneven playing field from day one. So we added a button that allowed them to ask questions digitally during class. The result: 68 percent of my students are asking questions in class. Women are asking more questions per capita than men. Students who are not native English speakers are asking just as many questions as the rest of the students. Victory!"

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.

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