How do we encourage our students to take ownership of their education? Over and over again I encounter students that want to sit passively in the classroom and receive knowledge. They expect me to tell them what they need to know and then the memorize the bare minimum necessary to pass the course. As soon as the semester is over, any knowledge they might have gained is quickly lost. This model of “education” is inherently flawed. It does not encourage life long learning, subject literacy, or critical thinking. Instead, it generates mindless drones.
My job is not to make students learn. I cannot do that against their will. Instead I see myself as a sort of personal trainer. I can point students in the direction of knowledge, but I cannot make them think. They must take an active role in the process. If someone buys a membership to a gym but never uses it, they will never get into shape. The same concept applies to the classroom. A student can pay thousands of dollars in tuition but never learn a thing.
As teachers there are many tools we can use in the classroom to encourage active learning. I am by no means an expert but here are a few of the things that I am trying to use to help my students take ownership of their education:
1) Make it relevant and relate able. One section of my introductory biology course where students really seem to get interested in the material is genetics. The subject is not easy but they can easily see how it can apply to their own lives. We spend a lot of time talking about inherited diseases like sickle cell anemia. I tell them stories about friends of mine that have a little boy with cystic fibrosis. I make it personal. There is a great Nova documentary called “Cracking Your Genetic Code” that discusses some of the real life implications of genetic testing. Together, these things provide my students with the context they need to see why learning this material is important.
2) Don’t talk at them, talk with them. I am totally guilty of this, especially this semester, but it is important to allow your students to engage in a conversation relevant to the course material. One thing that can help is to use case studies. I do this more in my microbiology course, but there are a lot of resources available for general biology courses as well (One great resource a comes from the College of Charleston and can be found here). Again, these provide relevance, while encouraging discussion.
3) Be smart about homework. In my introductory biology course I am using an online homework system that allows me to build pre lecture assignments that are designed to engage the students in the material before they come to class. They are relatively short And it is my hope that they might actually crack open the textbook before they enter the classroom each week. I also provide post lecture assignments that examine how well they understood the lecture content. I have mixed results with this approach. Some students seem to be much more engaged in the classroom after completing the assignments, but mostly I get a lot of complaints about how much work they have to do each week. I hope to continue to tweak this process in the future. I want to bring more of the homework problems into the classroom and use them as a platform for discussion.
Key Question: What have you found that can help engage students more deeply into the course material? One thing that I am hoping to explore more in the future is to use inquiry based labs. I’ll save that for another post later.
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