New Beginnings

The new semester has begun. I love the beginning of the school year. I always have. When I worked outside the academic world I was always a little bit sad at this time of year. I would get jealous of the people that I knew that were still in school or that had children were. The rhythm and structure that the school year provides appeals to my need for order in an otherwise chaotic world. Call me a nerd, but there is something wonderful about new school supplies. Empty notebooks and unused pens are filled with the promise of a fresh start.

The biggest difference for me this year is that I now have some experience under my belt. I have some room to breath. I am teaching two courses that I have taught before.  have a better feel for the abilities of my students and how to pace my lectures. For example, I now know that I need to spend several weeks covering genetics in my introductory biology course. The students are more interested in that material and ask more questions. They also struggle more with the concept of Punnett squares are genetic bookkeeping. I also have a year’s worth of powerpoint slides, exams, in-class activities to draw from rather than building everything from scratch.

Now that the framework is built I can start to work on introducing some new teaching methods and technologies. As I have lectured over the past few weeks I continue to struggle with student engagement. I look out over the classroom and there are students falling asleep. I ask questions and I get little more than quiet muttering in return. I am not boring. At least I don’t think I am. I try to make the material as interesting a possible and bring in real world examples, but the traditional lecture format simply is not enough, especially for the group of students that I teach who don’t tend to be the most self motivated. Starting next week I will be using a student response system from Turning Technologies in my intro course. It will allow me to ask a question during my lecture and all of the students will have an opportunity to respond via an electronic clicker device. My initial approach will be to use the clickers to encourage a form of collaborative learning called Think-Pair-Share described in the video below.

One advantage of using the clickers for this activity is I can immediately assess how well their level of understanding as individuals and as a class. This tool will allow my students to become active participants in the learning process rather than passive receivers of knowledge. I am hoping by breaking up my lectures and requiring student responses to questions I will get them to become move invested in the course material. What other tools and methods can I use to encourage active learning?


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