Actively Engaged Students: The Holy Grail of Teaching

Drawing of a king meeting a giant who is roasting a pig on a spit.

King Arthur finds a giant roasting a pig. (Illustration is in the public domain from Roman de Brut by Wace, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. Courtesy of the British Library.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

One of the most poorly kept secrets among people who advocate flipping the classroom in the sciences and engaging students in active learning is that the humanities have been flipping the classroom and practicing active learning for decades. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that the sciences have been taking a lesson from the humanities in recent years.

It’s well known that humanities classes often consist of discussions rather than lectures. Students read the text at home, and then the instructor leads a discussion in class.

The Quest for a Lively Discussion

But just as there are good and bad lectures, so too with discussions. How does a humanities instructor ensure that a discussion isn’t just a free-for-all? Or a series of painful silences?

Enter into the lists** Professor Arthur Bahr, who has just published two literature courses on OCW.

To engage students, he has them help shape what happens in class. In the Instructor Insights of his This Course at MIT page for 21L.460 Medieval Literature: Legends of Arthur, Professor Bahr explains how he had students, working in groups of four or five, identify questions and passages that might form the basis for discussion. This priming of the pump was essential to making the class a success:

“ . . . if they were not prepared, it was not going to be a good class. I told students they were responsible for making good discussions possible, and they needed to take ownership of their learning.”

Professor Bahr typically pointed out connections between these student submissions to frame and direct the discussions. So the students were engaged to begin with, and they kept their instructor always on his toes.

In a variation of this technique, students submit questions by email before class (the submissions are required and factored into final grades). Professor Bahr is then able to focus on things that students find interesting. This strategy has the side benefit of helping the more reticent students participate in the discussion because it allows “shy students to know in advance that their questions [are] going to be the subject of conversation.”

Posters of the Round Table

If the humanities have given something to the sciences, the sciences have also lent something to the humanities. After talking with a geneticist colleague, Professor Bahr decided to offer his students the option of creating a poster for their final project, in the same manner that science reseachers create posters for conferences. So many students took up this challenge that he held a public poster session showcasing their work.

Mock Tests Make for Heroic Achievements

In 21L.705 Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf, Professor Bahr took on the ambitious goal of teaching a medieval literary classic in its original language, all in a single semester.  A key part of his instruction was another lesson learned from the sciences: low-stakes assessments in the form of mock exams.

The exams “gave [students] a sense of how difficult the real assessments would be and how they needed to pace themselves when taking the exams. Additionally, they provided an opportunity for me to model the thought processes involved in completing complex tasks, such as sight translations.” As an additional benefit, “I knew that if all of the students performed poorly on a particular item, I needed to reassess how I was teaching that concept.”

Maybe the sciences and humanities have more in common than we might think.

** “The lists” are barriers used to designate the tournament area where medieval knights jousted.

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