As a leader in the field of physics and science education, Stanford Professor and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman has been an advocate of replacing large lectures with active learning techniques. Active learning focuses on having students work in class on challenges or problems related to the phenomena they are studying. Rather than just listening to a lecture, students develop disciplinary modes of inquiry and skills with instructor support in real time. These activities build students' conceptual understanding as well as their ability to engage meaningfully with the content.
Below is Professor Wieman’s observation guide to help better develop active learning class environments and evaluate their effectiveness. These techniques apply to modest size classes, 6 to 80 or so, where students can work in groups, with the instructor circulating around them, often with a TA helping.
A. Is goal of activity clear to students, so they engage quickly, or do they spent time trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing or why?
B. Does the goal of an activity seem appropriate? Does it involve practicing some skill that experts commonly use? Does it involve creating or interpreting a novel representation? Is there a particular difficulty or controversy in the task, rather than simply carrying through a lengthy procedure or something involving lots of writing, which could be better done as individual homework?
C. Motivation-- is the activity put in a meaningful context, such as addressing a real, world issue or is clear on how it will be useful in future activities? Does task involve a decision or judgement with justification? Is the task challenging, but doable as a group and includes some easy, initial parts that everyone can become engaged with? Does it relate to the type of problems on future exams and/or homework?
A. Is it introduced in terms of a big picture and/or learning goal for the day? Does the instructor periodically return to this to remind students how they are progressing through the big picture?
B. Is there something students have to first individually do, ideally with some kind of product, before engaging in collaborative work?
C. If there is any confusion about the task, does the instructor quickly notice and clarify to whole the class?
D. Is there a clear deliverable (completed worksheet, etc.) that students are expected to produce - ideally both individually and collectively?
E. Does the instructor circulate, monitoring how each group is doing and helping as needed, but not spending too much time with one or small number of groups while neglecting the others? Are the instructor and TA appropriately dividing up oversight and feedback?
F. Are groups being monitored for their level of engagement, group interaction, and progress towards solution?
G. Does instructor or TA tend to jump in with answers or long lectures to groups or larger class before students have had sufficient opportunity to struggle with the task?
H. Are groups kept to an appropriate size (2-4) so everyone can be engaged? Does the instructor intervene to encourage interaction in each group when needed?
I. Are there checkpoints at appropriate intervals, where instructor breaks in and makes sure everyone has reached a specific point, to resynchronize activities and ensure spread between groups is not getting too large and no group is stuck for too long?
J. Is instructor monitoring progress and ensuring that the task duration is appropriate? While there should be adequate time for all groups to make substantial progress, too much will cause those groups that finish early to get off task. Group tasks should then be followed by a wrap-up discussion that includes the whole class.
K. Is there an appropriate wrap-up discussion - which reviews the important ideas and covers things that some or all groups did not figure out - but avoids spending time redoing what all groups have already successfully completed? (In other words, is the wrap-up adjusted according to how students did on the activity?). Is engagement encouraged by having various groups explain different parts of an answer? Does wrap-up lecture go on so long and/or repeats what they have already done, so that students start to disengage (not looking at instructor, etc.)? Do students never engage in the first place, because they know instructor will just be going through a detailed answer, regardless of what they do?
L. Does instructor pause for questions and allow plenty of time (at least several seconds) for students to formulate questions? Does instructor address questions when circulating amongst groups and bring them up during the wrap-up discussion - such as either by telling the student it is a good question and to wait and ask during wrap up (if appropriate), or repeats the question to the entire class?
A. How many students are off task and for how long? Are all students productively engaged, both individually when supposed to be, and as part of group when supposed to be?
B. When groups have stopped and are raising their hands with a question, does instructor or TA notice them quickly? Are there times when multiple groups are waiting with hands raised and waiting for help?
C. Are there any students who are being excluded from group discussions? For instance, are there issues with the chair and table layout, group size, gender or ethnicity which might cause exclusion? Does instructor notice and intervene to encourage collaboration?
D. Are most groups nearly completing the activities?
E. Are many students asking deep questions during the activity wrap up phase?
F. Are there students not asking the instructor questions, but instead, whispering to neighbors during or right after the instructor's explanation or at the start of the next activity? (This may indicate they have questions but are uncomfortable asking.)