TEACHxperts: Learning Sticks When Students Work Together

On November 9, 2017, Bennett Goldberg, the Director of the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, Assistant Provost for Learning and Teaching, and Professor of Physics and Astronomy will facilitate session for the TEACHxpert Speaker Series: Learning Sticks When Students Work Together. Susie Calkins, Director of Faculty Initiatives at the Searle Center, asked Bennett to share how and why he came to use active and collaborative learning in his own courses and in developing curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students more broadly.

Susie: Bennett, how did you become interested in active and collaborative learning?

Bennett: I first became interested in collaborative and active learning in the mid-90s, when I was a Physics professor at Boston University.  I had been using a traditional approach to lecture (transmission) for about 6 years and, struggling with the passivity of my students, I began to look for ways to make my courses more engaging. At that time, there was a mini-movement in physics undergraduate education led by Ron Thorton from Tufts University and David Sokoloff from Washington,[1] referred to as an interactive lecture demonstration (ILD) approach to teaching.

I arranged to observe one of Ron’s classes, and found the ILD approach to teaching and learning to be a physicist’s dream. I adopted the ILD approach in my own courses, that involved large demonstrations on the table with great effects – loud noises, maybe some flames, a huge swinging pendulum. The ILD also had sensors and an early, small data interface, which allowed us to measure the velocity, acceleration, force, time interval, sound spectrum – whatever was a parameter in the experiment. This approach fed the showman in me, but also meant that as an instructor, I was able to do authentic—albeit well-controlled and staged—experiments right there in class. The students were engaged too, having been prompted to think about key issues (exploring their key conceptions), discuss those ideas briefly with their peers, and make predictions. From my perspective, this approach was a big success. The students enjoyed the process, they were active and conversant in class, and I had a lot of fun.

At the same time, I was involved in developing STEM training for grad students and postdocs. With funding, I developed ILDs for several classes and started a program that trained STEM grad students with immersive experiences in high school and middle school classrooms. Over time, I began to notice the amount of active and collaborative learning happening. These experiences from the mid-90s completely convinced me that active and collaborative learning were cornerstones for all the teaching that I would do from that point on.

SC: How did you learn to use active and collaborative learning strategies?

BG: I learned to use active learning strategies through three approaches: First, I watched other faculty teach. Early on in my career, I was involved in introductory courses that were taught by a group of faculty. We used common assessments – all exams, homework, quizzes, etc. were identical across sections - and this generated a general expectation and culture that the group of faculty would be using similar approaches and pedagogy. Not all faculty did, but I was very interested in the active learning approaches of my colleagues, who, in the mid-90s, were already doing peer instruction, using clickers, worksheets, and also pre-class assignments, even in a large lecture hall. I learned a lot from teaching for several years in this collective group. Later on, we institutionalized the approach, where faculty who were going to teach in the open, flat classroom with active learning visited faculty who were currently teaching.

Second, I became intellectually interested. I became interested in how my students learned, and what had been written and understood about teaching in my discipline. The more I read and chatted with colleagues, the more I gained an appreciation for the depth, conceptual content, and interesting theoretical and operational constructs around learning and teaching. I saw a shift in my own perspective – in daily preparation for class, I started spending more and more time on what the students would be doing and how the activities would lead to their learning, and less and less on the content itself. I started engaging with research and also in starting to ask questions about my own class. Physics Education Research was starting to take off and the field was asking interesting questions, and I found myself collecting good ideas and approaches and trying them out. Active and collaborative learning was a main focus of my interest and activity, and I was able to explore Scale-Up at NC State and TEAL at MIT. 

Third, I experimented. I tried different groupings of students around the tables, I tried different ways of ordering the worksheets and introductory lecture and the small table-top labs. I found that some approaches worked and some didn’t, and I gravitated my practice toward greater student discussion, engagement and group work. I answered fewer student questions with, “let me show you how to solve that,” and instead had them show each other their solutions. I showed student work to the whole class, affirming their effort. Through experimentation I found my own excitement and joy, and especially that I was able to engage with students far more directly and frequently in an active and collaborative learning environment than in a traditional lecture environment.

SC: What are you hoping people will get out of your upcoming TEACHxpert session?

BG: Learning happens at the nexus of instructional practice, content, students, and space. Each of the four elements come together to create a learning environment. Students come with pre-conceptions, motivation, and mindset; instructors come with their teaching philosophy and practice; content comes from a given set of perspectives; and space negotiates much of the interactions among the other three. In this session we will discuss this construct, and come up with the ways space influences students, instructors, and content.  Faculty, staff, and administrators will leave with a greater appreciation for how space plays a critical role in student learning, and how space encourages instructors in both explicit and implicit ways toward more engaged student learning. Finally, participants will join in a discussion of what we should be doing about classroom space at Northwestern and how we should get there.


[1] D.R. Sokoloff and R.K. Thornton, "Using Interactive Lecture Demonstrations to Create an Active Learning Environment", Phys. Teacher, 35, 340 (1997).