The transition to an active learning curriculum is done in the hopes that not only the testable variables of a learners progress – the test scores and the averages – will rise, but that the antecedents of improvement will come from a genuine spike in interest and understanding of the subject matter.
A new way of teaching can be problematic and bumpy.
Dawson College biology professor Suzanne Kunicki approaches the problem from two angles.
“It’s conceptually trickier and definitely more time intensive” she said, noting that the biggest obstacle in an active learning classroom is time.
The first is by becoming more of a facilitator of group interaction rather than a lecturer. This means a careful assessment of her students so that each student’s particular advantages and characteristics complements, supports, and aids his or her fellows. In effect, the classroom becomes similar to a sport team. The teacher becomes the coach, guiding and instructing, but the real emphasis turns to the students and their dynamic with each other.
“Technology is wonderful. It really helps,” she says, referring to programs like FirstClass were students can interact on their own time and at their own choosing.
For her part, Kunicki had to restructure the learning material. She honed in on concept synthesis and the cultivation of ideas not already found in the material and textbooks.
“The knowledge I have for myself isn’t found in textbooks,” she says.
This means strategies like ‘conceptual biology’ or, in her words, “what happens if…”: Students are asked to imagine biological situations like cells without a Golgi apparatus or a problem occurring during cell division and extrapolate the possible results, then share and examine their ideas. These assigned activities, besides being interactive, are tailored to fill conceptual holes, and stir student curiosity and reasoning well after the class is over.
“Students are not passive. They ask, they demand an answer to their curiosity.”
Suzanne requires students to prepare before class through things like creative writing, pre-class reading, vocabulary tests, group discussions. FirstClass is encouraged so students get into the habit of doing and thinking about the material with their peers away from their desks.
Students, if improperly approached or if the curriculum does not fit them, will fear and resist the pedagogy. This makes the idea of learning as collaboration crucial. Then, in her words, “the chemistry can change and trust can come about.”
“Group cohesion is very important.”
Importance of class architecture: small tables over rows, interactive technology. Small class sizes so careful observation can be performed and nobody is left behind.
“A strong teacher is needed to ‘corral’ students”
Examples of properly fitting students together: channeling a ‘domineering personality’ to help others; suggesting students with better concept acquisition teach and help their fellows.