Active-Learning Activities Across Disciplines

12 April 2024
By Anastasia Pantazopoulou, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics; Rebecca Terry, Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics; and Chris Saladin, Visiting Assistant Professor of Digital Arts & Humanities

Teaching Circle Description: “Each year the LTC supports one or two teaching circles. These teaching circles provide the opportunity for three faculty members to observe each other’s classes, engage in conversation, and learn from each other.”

Anastasia Pantazopoulou (Classics), Rebecca Terry (Math & Stats), and Chris Saladin (Digital Arts & Humanities) came together as a teaching circle this winter to explore how different disciplines use active learning practices in the classroom. More particularly, our teaching circle examined pedagogical tools and different types of activities, such as group discussion, gamified experiences, and hands-on inquiry that can be used in the classroom to effectively engage students. In-class activities can look very different across disciplines, but are united by their goal to strengthen learning through active student engagement. By observing how colleagues in the disciplines of Classics, Math, and Digital Humanities employ active learning techniques, the objective of the circle was to further our understanding of how such activities could be utilized within our respective disciplines to foster an interactive and engaging learning experience. 

Here, we provide a glimpse into our experience, with a particular focus on our conversations and observations about active learning activities across disciplines.

What we did: We observed three colleagues’ classes in the Winter term of 2024. Chris observed Anastasia’s CLAS 132: “Fantasy and Science Fiction” and Rebecca’s MATH 211: “Introduction to Multivariable Calculus”; Anastasia observed Rebecca’s MATH 232: “Linear Algebra,” Rebecca observed Anastasia’s GRK 101: “Elementary Greek”; Anastasia and Rebecca both observed Chris’ DGAH 210: Spatial Humanities.”

Class Visits and Learning-Practices Observations

The “Double Randomization” Discussion: Chris sat in on Anastasia’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction” class, which featured a discussion of the social commentaries within modern and ancient dystopian fiction. To help facilitate this discussion within a large class with 26 students, Anastasia asked students to prepare notecards answering a series of questions about the assigned reading for the day. Students were then asked to hand their notecards to a neighbor, stand up, and walk over to discuss the answers on the card with a classmate on the other side of the room. Chris observed that, while students were relatively quiet in their discussions with neighbors earlier in class, the class seemed to come alive during this exercise. The “double randomization” seemed to encourage fruitful conversation with new partners of other students’ answers, which took the pressure off students needing to rely only on their own interpretations of the readings. Such randomization can prove effective for class discussions across disciplines. Chris has since adapted elements of this exercise for his current Digital Humanities class, asking students to prepare answers before class and randomizing groups during small group discussions. 

The “Bad Map” Activity: Rebecca observed Chris’ “Spatial Humanities” course in which students were creating maps in ArcGIS Pro. The class was split into three parts. The first part reviewed principles of good map design during which time students took turns explaining the different features that are important to consider in the construction of a map including visual contrast, balance and legibility. For the second part, Chris had constructed a map that lacked some of these important features, and tasked students to work in pairs and identify “what’s wrong with this map?” Chris provided the printed map along with red pens to each pair, so students could not only discuss but also draw on the map, highlighting features that needed improvement. Students were quick to work together and discuss ways in which they could improve the map. When the class regrouped as a whole, students who had not responded during the first part of the class readily volunteered to share the observations they had made with their partner. Having the opportunity to discuss ideas with another person prior to sharing with the entire class may have given some students greater confidence in voicing their opinions. Rather than “I thought…” students had the support of one of their peers and could respond with “we thought…,” providing a bit more anonymity and less pressure as to how others may perceive their response. By the end of the first and second part, each student in the class had contributed to the larger group discussion. For the third part, students continued working on the construction of their own maps with greater insight into what features to pay particular attention to, based on the earlier class discussion. After observing Chris’ well-scaffolded lesson on map design and seeing how students responded to the task of providing constructive criticism on someone else’s work, Rebecca plans to adapt Chris’ activity to “what’s wrong with this solution” or “what’s wrong with this proof” to provide students the opportunity to critique sample solutions or proofs, and identify places for improvement.

The “Think-Pair-Share” Strategy: Anastasia observed Rebecca’s “Linear Algebra” class, a 200-level course in which students study highly structured functions called linear transformations. During the day of the observation, the 24 students in the classroom were learning how to apply a certain theorem to describe a coordinate mapping. Rebecca started the class by handing students a worksheet around which the class was structured. She set up the class with a brief introduction of the material, engaging the students with small questions to gradually build up the necessary content-knowledge for them to work on the activities of the worksheet. When the class moved to examining the questions and problems on the worksheet, Rebecca structured the discussion around the activities in a scaffolded “think-pair-share” way, giving the students one minute to reflect on the question/problem individually, then two minutes to chat in small groups with their closest neighbor(s), and then a few minutes to share with the rest of the class their thoughts/answer on the question/problem. Students felt very comfortable with the process and were ready to discuss in the small-groups, as well as to volunteer to share their small-group observations when the class regrouped as a whole. Think-pair-share (TPS) is an active learning strategy that can be particularly effective in large classes as it allows for a higher percentage of students to be engaged, and this was particularly obvious in Rebecca’s class, since even the students who were initially quieter, started contributing after they had the opportunity to discuss their ideas with a partner. After observing Rebecca’s well-scaffolded lesson and well-timed TPS approach, Anastasia has reconsidered her implementation of the same cooperative learning strategy and has followed in her classes Rebecca’s mindful timing and of each stage of the activity, to maximize the effectiveness of the TPS strategy adjusting it to the needs of her students and class content.

By participating in this teaching circle, we benefited from observing and discussing the practices we utilize to actively engage students in the classroom. Through our conversations and class visits, it became evident that active learning practices and strategies can be adapted and tailored to suit the specific content, goals, and learning objectives of different disciplines, ultimately enhancing student engagement and learning outcomes across the board. Finally, each of us came away through the teaching-circle process with greater insight into commonalities and differences across our disciplines, and plans to adapt the activities we observed in one another’s classes to our future courses to enhance the collaborative and active-learning environment in our classrooms.