Tuesday 13 August 2013

Social Constructivism in Big Classes

+Theron Hitchman (who is a great guy to follow on G+ and one of the go to guys as far as I am concerned when it comes to Inquiry Based Learning (IBL)) recently posted on G+ wondering how he was going to manage with a course of his having 68 students enrolled.

I am still understanding IBL but it is one of many teaching methodologies that use a constructivist model (here's a post by +Dana Ernst about an article that claims that these approaches aren't that great). I have spoken about constructivism before when reviewing a great education book. The basic concept of constructivism is that students need/should learn through a personal 'construction of the concepts'. IBL does this by giving students the reigns to the direction and also the discovery of the content of a course (I am sure +Dana Ernst+Theron Hitchman  and others could either forgive me or correct my brief summary).

This is often done (although not exclusively, take a look at +Bret Benesh's post) done through the use of student presentations and generally needs a non-lecture based approach: which is difficult with a large number of students!.

Theron's post on G+ got a lot of comments with people offering advice and +Bret Benesh wrote a nice blog post suggesting a peer learning approach.

I thought I would throw in my two cents as I have recently designed a new course that made use of peer learning.

The course is a statistical programming course on our MSc programme here at +Cardiff University.

You can see all the resources for the course here.

To deal with large teaching numbers in that class (this was the first year of running and it had 27 students but I certainly believe that my approach is scalable and I designed it thinking that I'd have 40+ students at times). I used a peer learning approach based on flipped classrooms, problems and with a hint of IBL thrown in.
  • First of all it took a lot of preparation. I flipped the class completely putting together a full set of notes as well as a full set of videos (you can see them on the site).
  • I made groups of 3/4 out of all the students.
  • For every topic, I put together a set of problems that all the groups where told they had to complete. I called these 'challenges' (it seemed a bit snappier) and you can see them on the course website.
  • Every class (this course was taught in 8 sessions over a 4 week period) started with the me asking who would like to present a solution to the challenge.
The students were aware that their final mark for the course would take in to account participation in these presentations but I made it clear that the corresponding contribution would be mainly based on the fact that they tried and not necessarily how good a job they did. In essence I did not really care whether or not they managed to do the challenges, I just wanted them to work on it!

By the beginning of the 5th session, students were happy to present and needed no gentle nudging from me. In fact some of the students who presented started off by saying "I didn't manage to do this but this is what I tried". Seeing that students got that it was ok to not succeed at something was really great to see. Whenever that happened the students would start discussing amongst themselves how to do a particular problem: and would teach each other!

Throughout all of this, I would sit at the back of the room and vary rarely say anything at all. At times I would perhaps nudge a bit with a "does anyone know a different way to do that?".

One of my favourite memories of the course was towards the end when at the beginning of one session I did not prompt the students to start the class. All of them were just chatting amongst themselves (not about the course) and I was sat at the back observing. After a while one of the students turned around and looked at me questionably. I just smiled. She got up, told everyone that they should get started and the class started teaching itself. That day I didn't actually say anything.

I think this happened to work well because the challenges were designed in such a way so that students were lead through the curriculum but given the nature of the course I also made sure that they had plenty of resources with which they could practice things further.

I encouraged the students to find other resources then the ones I put together and also encouraged them to share their solutions with each other after each session (I believe they used a dropbox folder but I emphasised that I would stay out of the way).

The whole course culminated with one of the assessments being a presentation where the students (still in their group) had to teach me something that was not in the resources made available to them. I wrote about this here and one of the things a group put together was this cool gif of the Mandlebrot set:

I'm currently going through a teaching certification process and have blogged about it many times. You can see my various portfolios [here](http://www.vincent-knight.com/home/teaching/pcutl) but if I am to take only one sentence from everything I've done so far it would be this pretty cool definition of teaching:

"To create learning opportunities."

I believe that teaching in a constructivist framework does exactly that and I really hope that large classrooms do not dissuade educators from using it :)

Anyway, what I hoped would be a perhaps helpful post for +Theron Hitchman ended up just being another page or two of me rambling on...

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