Active and Collaborative Learning

Teaching social media tools in the Collaborative Classroom

Having researched learning spaces over the past couple of years, and having taught some active and collaborative workshops of my own in Van Pelt Library’s new Collaborative Classroom, I’ve become more interested in how faculty are using active learning classrooms (ALCs) to better engage students with each other and with course material. This semester, I was lucky enough to do a number of active-learning-related things: present about Penn Libraries’ Collaborative Classroom together with Sam Kirk at a local conference, travel to another university to learn about how their ALCs work, and observe active learning right here in our own Collaborative Classroom.

In September, Sam Kirk and I presented at the annual PaLA Conference in Lancaster on the evolution of learning spaces in academic libraries. Particularly, we highlighted spaces at Penn Libraries, including WIC, the EC, and the new Collaborative Classroom. We talked about our experiences working with both technology and patrons in these spaces, and most importantly, how you can engage in active learning even if you don’t have a formal active learning space.

Our audience members hailed from both public and academic libraries alike.  They engaged in some active learning themselves in our session to imagine their own ideal library learning spaces. It was great to learn how other libraries are re-imagining traditional library spaces to accommodate new teaching and learning methodologies.

Medium-sized ALC at the University of Minnesota
Medium-sized ALC at the University of Minnesota

Also in September, I had the special opportunity, together with staff members from all around Penn, of visiting the University of Minnesota’s Science Teaching & Student Services center (STSS), which features 14 active learning classrooms of various sizes (from those that seat 27 to those that seat 171). During just a few hours at the university, our group toured each size classroom, spoke with university administrators about classroom use, effects on student learning and engagement, ways the university has assessed student outcomes in active learning classrooms, and observed a 130-person introductory biology class.

In the biology class, about 15 tables of 9 students worked on an “inquiry,” which involved annotating a diagram of DNA replication. Each group worked together to draw the figure on their whiteboard and collectively annotate it, with certain group members assigned to transcribe, look up information on the computer, and touch base with the instructors and TAs. It was fascinating to see the groups work within their tables, across tables, and even to answer their own questions as they went through this active learning process. To finish, all groups took a picture of their diagram and emailed it to the professor, who then selected one picture to share with the class and analyze.

One of the most important takeaways from this active learning observation included students’ accountability for group work. Because group work is such a large part of each student’s grade, measured by in-class quizzes, peer-reviews, and end-of-term evaluations, students feel a collective responsibility to ensure that all work produced is of high quality. One instructor reported that students will even call each other out if anyone in the group is texting or on Facebook when they need to be paying attention (sounds like every instructor’s dream come true!).

Here at Penn Libraries, my active learning experiences this semester culminated in observing Dr. Cathy Turner’s English class, “Modern America.” My involvement in Cathy’s class started at the beginning of the semester when she requested using WIC’s iPads each week so that students could collectively edit poetry in a class Google Drive account, project it on the whiteboard walls, and annotate over it with marker (Cathy has also used our iPads for collaborative learning in past courses). This was Cathy’s first semester teaching in the classroom, and she also experimented with other collaborative text-annotation tools, including Annotation Studio, with the help of subject librarian Sam Kirk.

Students finding and projecting advice columns from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

During the class I observed, students used laptops at each table to find and then project onto the whiteboards advice columns from the Brookyln Daily Eagle in the early-1930s. Turner3Tapping into actual printed material acted as a way for the students to shed more social and cultural context on their current reading assignment, Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts.  Students rotated around each table reading each others’ discoveries and contemplating connections to the novel, including similarities and differences in tone, topic, language and authenticity. Then, in their groups, the students brainstormed general social/cultural/political themes that pervaded the actual Brooklyn Daily Eagle advice columns, and how these connected to issues West highlights in Miss Lonelyhearts.

I had such a great time participating in Cathy’s class and am very grateful to her and her students for inviting me! It was fantastic to see how active learning is working right here in Van Pelt Library, especially in a humanities class, and it gave me lots of ideas to incorporate into my future workshops and research. I’d say my active participating in active learning did increase my own understanding of these topics, a “meta” experience not uncommon in active learning pedagogy!

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