Orchestrating Active Learning in a Less-than-Ideal Environment

Stacy Palen is an award-winning professor in the physics department and director of the Ott Planetarium at Weber State University. Dr. Palen is passionate about teaching astronomy, and presents tips on creating an active learning environment below.

image credit: Zac Williams

Somehow or other, classroom architects in the 1960s, 1970s, and as far along as the 2010s did not get the memo that instructors would sometimes want students to work together on projects. It’s a mystery. Even in our two-year-old science building, the lecture halls are set up for presenting to large groups. This is fine, but presents a challenge when I want to have students collaborate.

Often, I’ll put students in groups of two for brief discussion on things such as clicker questions or to work through a worksheet. “Groups” of two are easy to accomplish. But sometimes, we just need more room, either to work in groups of three or four, or to work with “manipulables” such as paper moons or large maps.

When this happens, I need an advance plan. Typically, I will need about twice as much space as I have in the seating area of the lecture hall. I’ll look for space in the front or back of the lecture hall, and down the stairs on either side of banks of chairs, and estimate how many groups of 3–4 I can fit in those areas. I will scout out nearby alternative locations for students to work, such as a stairwell, outdoor retaining wall, or atrium. Sometimes there are groups of chairs at the end of a hallway, or benches outside the classroom.

At the beginning of class, I’ll spend a few minutes on the typical introduction to the activity and the material, and then I’ll invite the students to spread themselves out to work in the spaces I’ve designated. About a third of them stay in the seating area of the lecture hall, turning backwards and kneeling in their chairs to work with the people behind them. The rest move out into the larger spaces and form into small groups.

I spend the rest of the time walking through those spaces: interrupting groups who’ve gone off track, or who aren’t making progress, gently nudging students to ask better questions and suggesting that student X take a turn holding the paper “Moon.”

It sounds like chaos, but it actually works out very well. One unexpected benefit is that I am harder to find. This means that students must struggle on their own a bit longer before they can ask me for help. Often, that little bit of “extra” time lets them solve their own problem.

I’ve never had a student complain about this, nor have I heard from the professors teaching in neighboring classrooms that it has been in any way disruptive. Sometimes, they just shut their door.

I have, on occasion, had students who are wheelchair users or whose mobility is restricted in some other way, and so I make certain to keep an eye out for any obstacles to group inclusion, physical or otherwise. Most always find a group without issue, but I do keep an eye on the situation, just in case.

Possibly the most common question I get asked about active learning is, “How can I do this in a lecture hall?” Depending on the individual situation, it may be difficult. But take a look around—often you might find you can “rent” a little space outside the confines of the lecture hall for the fun activities you want to do!

Original post from Stacy Palen’s Teaching Astronomy by Doing Astronomy Blog (3/29/19).