
Getting students to take responsibility
Posted:
Oct 4, 1995 7:55 PM


I would like to initiate a discussion around the subject of HELPING STUDENTS TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR OWN LEARNING. What do you do to create an active learning environment where students can become more involved in their education? This might involve group learning, cooperative techniques, interactive lectures, in class and out of class projects etc. Please site specific examples, results you have had and what you might do differently in the future for a particular exercize. I will start the discussion with an experiment I tried recently in two developmental math classes I teach at Cape Cod Community College.
By way of background I have two Intermediate Algebra classes. One at night with mostly adults and one during the day with mostly younger students. We have finished a review of elementary algebra where we have worked in pairs and groups of four for the past two weeks. The students are now relatively used to working together and have rearranged themselves to find people they are compatable with.
I started the section on factoring polynomials by announcing that this would be their chapter. They would be responsible for teaching themselves and the class this material with me serving as their consultant to assist in arbitrating disputes and helping them clarify any difficult concepts or procedures. To help the process along I suggested that each table of students (46 at a hexagonal table) be responsible for teaching one subsection of the chapter for the class. They "agreed" to try this approach. We spent two days working on the material in class. A few groups did some work out of class in the math lab where they work as a study groups normally. There was a great deal of concern about their being required to "teach" the material. I assured them that they would not be graded on their performance, that this was as much an experiment for me as them and they relaxed a little. They worked on strategy for their presentations, what order of problems to discuss and who would do what. I asked for volunteers to start and two students offered to go first to end their ordeal quickly so they wouldn't have to sit in class a get more nervous. I congratulated them on their strategy. They worked together putting problems up and discussing them. There seemed to be comfort in their doing this together versus having to go to the board alone. Interestingly they worked on the side board not the board in the front of the class. The rest of the class was inspired by their approach and at one point an entire table went up together to work at the board. This required a little management on my part so everyone could see what was going on and have a chance to ask questions.
The students basically worked through their procedures for factoring without a lot of theoretical discussion. This was acceptable to me since the factoring topic is somewhat mechanical in nature and this was the first time any of the students had attempted to "teach" math. I stepped in to highlight important aspects being discussed and to emphasize particular areas of potential difficulty or mistakes. I did that as much to get involved in the process myself so that I would not be perceived as not doing anything to help them along. (This is a problem with group learning. The teacher is sometimes perceived as not being involved when they actually are more involved helping individual groups). The procedure went very smoothly. Students encouraged each other and even clapped for especially good presentations. A good time was had and many problems were discussed by the end of the class.
In the end all but three students made some kind of presentation. Some shorter than others as you might expect, some very detailed. We may have discovered a few budding teachers in the group. The students felt much better about the exercize after we completed it.
Next I gave them a group test. I assigned 5 problems at a time and the group was responsible for getting the solutions. Each member had to write one problem on an answer sheet I provided. This was to prevent one person from doing all the work. I offered them a half a point for each correct answer to be tallied on the chapter test. I didn't reduce the number of problems on the test, just their point values. In two days we worked through 40 problems in class. They worked extremely hard and cooperatively. It is amazing what students will do for half a point. I'm not sure I would have been able to cover that many problems in class if I did them all myself. Finally before they exam I asked each student to make up a test covering all the material with their accompanying solutions. This helped them focus on the nature of test making and what they might expect. Again there was a lot of variation here but overall a good effort by almost all of the students.
I then gave an exam to promote individual accountability and the results were excellent. Out of a class of 30 in the day only 3 did not pass. These were students who were not participating very actively in the process dispite my frequent interventions and exhortations. That is a subject for another discussion. There were 4 grades between 7580 and the rest were above 90. The evening class of 27 had even better results. The lower grades were also predictable based upon my observation of the students level of enthusiasm for this approach and perhaps algebra in general.
The biggest benefit for me is that I get to see students performing in every class and can assess their ability and level of effort before they take the exam. The students had a good time as evidenced by comments they made through an informal evaluation I did after we were through. And finally their individual performance demonstrated that they had mastered the material.
If you have read this far I would appreciate any comments or observations you might have and examples of your own efforts to provide an active learning environment for your students. I will accumulate the results and send them out to participating lists.
Ted Panitz tpanitz@mecn.mass.edu Cape Cod Community College 2240 Iyanough Rd. W. Barnstable, MA 02668

