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Making the First-Year Classroom Conducive to Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Traditionally, writing assignments assess what students have learned. Writing-to-learn serves a different purpose. In these exercises, students write to and for themselves in order to collect their thoughts and get them down on paper, where they can be examined and revised. Typically, writing-to-learn exercises are short: a few sentences, perhaps a paragraph or two. Although faculty often collect and skim what students have written in order to see what they are thinking, writing-to-learn exercises are usually not graded.


The posting below looks at some important approaches to improved learning in large class settings. It is from Chapter 14, Inside the First-Year Classroom - Challenges and Constraints, by Bette LaSere Erickson and Diane W. Strommer in the book Challenging and supporting the First-Year Student - A Handbook for Improving the First Year of College, by M. Lee Upcraft, John N. Gardner, and Betsy O. Barefoot. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 914103-1741 [] Copyright © 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Post-Tenure Faculty Review and Renewal

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Making the First-Year Classroom Conducive to Learning


What once appeared as the most effective and efficient way to teach and learn-the research university model of faculty who create knowledge and deliver it to students through lectures-falters under today's learning demands and with today's students. While practically it may be too cost-effective an instructional method to abandon totally, the diversity of students in background and learning style, their developmental position, and what we know about human learning all argue for using classroom strategies that actively involve students. The few strategies we discuss here have proven powerful in working with first-year students, are adaptable to any size classroom and in any discipline, and are capable of being incorporated with lectures. (For more detailed guidance and suggestions for further alternatives to the lecture, we suggest Bean, 1996; Brookfield & Preskill, 1999; Davis, 1993; Erickson & Strommer, 1991; McKeachie, 1999; Menges & others, 1996).

Small Group Discussion Techniques

When we think about discussion methods, we often imagine a spirited exchange of ideas involving most, if not all, students in the class. In practice, this rarely happens even in small classes. More often, the instructor talks most of the time, a few students participate in the discussion, and most others sit quietly, perhaps listening and thinking about what is said, perhaps not. At times, students may benefit from hearing the diversity of views expressed in whole class discussions even if they do not participate, but those benefits will be enhanced to the extent that all students voice their ideas either beforehand or afterward.

Dividing a class into small groups for discussion offers opportunities for more students to participate actively-to voice their ideas, receive feedback from peers, and clarify and refine their thinking. The technique works well as a warm-up for a whole class discussion, as an opportunity for students to react to issues under consideration, or as opportunity for students to react to issues under consideration, or as a follow-up to other class activities. Small group tasks also provide occasions for instructors to encourage deep processing of information and ideas. Instructors may, for example, ask small groups to review, paraphrase, and summarize; connect new information to prior learning; elaborate and extend by thinking of additional examples or contexts; and apply ideas and procedures to new problems.

The base groups recommended by Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) are small groups whose membership is constant throughout the term. Students are assigned to groups at the beginning of the course, they sit together during classes, and they may meet outside class. In addition to the tasks outlined for ad hoc groups, instructors may ask base group members to assume a variety of support tasks-to check on the social and emotional well-being of their group members, make sure group members prepare for class, or contact any members who miss class, for example. Creating base groups is one way to minimize the sense of isolation an anonymity that first-year students often feel in large classes.

Study groups, which some students form spontaneously, also merit systematic attention and direction from faculty who teach first-year students. Research reported by Light (2001) found that students who met in small groups of four to six, even just once a week, to discuss their homework are "far more engaged and far better prepared, and they learn significantly more" (p. 52). The benefits of study groups in the sciences are even more striking: "Whether or not students work together in small study groups outside of class is the single best predictor of how many classes in science they will take. Those who do work in small groups take more science courses" (p. 74). In the light of these findings, faculty might not only encourage but actually help students form study groups, offer suggestions on what groups should do when they meet, design homework assignments with study groups in mind, and meet with study groups during office hours. Davis (1993) offers additional suggestions for setting up study groups.

In project groups, students are assigned to small groups for the purpose of completing one or more projects during the semester. Much of the group work is done outside class, although faculty working with first-year students often schedule periodic group meetings during class to help students get organized and to monitor progress. To work effectively, students in project groups must believe that it is to their advantage to work together rather than independently. Designing assignments that can be better done by groups than by individuals is therefore an important key to the success of project groups. Those who have used project groups also recommend that faculty (1) carefully explain the rationale for project groups, (2) describe how their work will be evaluated, (3) outline the responsibilities of individuals to their groups, (4) alert students to potential problems and ask groups to define ground rules for themselves, (5) provide strategies for groups to deal with uncooperative members, and (6) periodically invite students to evaluate the effectiveness of their own and others' contributions to the group. (For additional ideas about how to support students who, for whatever reasons-cultural background, learning style previous unpleasant group experiences-have difficulty working in groups, see Bean, 1996; Erickson & Strommer, 1991; Brookfield & Preskill, 1999.)

Such small group activities can be incorporated into very large classes as well as small ones. Base groups or project groups connect students with one another and reduce the isolation of large classes. Stopping a lecture two or three times to have three or four students become an ad hoc group to find an additional example of a point being made, summarize the major theme of what has gone before, or otherwise engage in the material helps to lengthen their span of concentration and focus their attention. Writing-to-learn activities have a similar virtue.

Writing-to-Learn Activities

Traditionally, writing assignments assess what students have learned. Writing-to-learn serves a different purpose. In these exercises, students write to and for themselves in order to collect their thoughts and get them down on paper, where they can be examined and revised. Typically, writing-to-learn exercises are short: a few sentences, perhaps a paragraph or two. Although faculty often collect and skim what students have written in order to see what they are thinking, writing-to-learn exercises are usually not graded.

Writing-to-learn assignments, like small group discussion activities, can serve a variety of purposes. Beginning class, for example, by asking students to write a one-paragraph summary of the previous class helps to connect learning. Pausing periodically during lecture or discussion to ask students to summarize the main points helps avoid overloading working memory and keeps students actively involved. To prompt deeper processing of material, stop from time to time during class and ask students to jot down an example from their own experience, write about another context in which the material might apply, describe the way in which they would go about solving a problem, or react to an interpretation or conclusion. (For additional ideas see Bean, 1996; Sorcinelli & Elbow, 1997.)

Similar writing-to-learn assignments encourage more active and thorough reading of assignments outside class. Because paraphrasing is an important step toward processing information deeply, assignments that ask students to write summaries or explanations as if they were writing to a relative or to a friend are good prompts for deeper study. Depending on the nature of the reading, faculty might ask students to write about an experience they have had related to the reading, provide an example not discussed in the reading, imagine how the author might respond to a current event or issue, think of a possible exception to an author's ideas, or write questions they would like to ask the author. The possibilities are many; the idea is to move students beyond verbatim memorization to deeper processing of their reading. Bean (1996) devotes an entire chapter to using writing to help students read difficult texts.

Small group discussions and writing-to-learn activities provide a good beginning repertoire of instructional methods. Simply by changing the tasks and questions, both methods can involve students in practice for a variety of objectives. They are especially potent for encouraging students to process information more deeply. Even a two- or three-minute discussion or writing-to-learn activity engages students in paraphrasing, summarizing, or thinking of other examples. They work in any size class, even very large ones. By alternating these methods or using them in combination, we accommodate both students who learn by talking things through (extraverts) and students who prefer thinking things through before they engage in activity (introverts).

Other Instructional Techniques

Other dimensions of learning style merit attention and argue for expanding our repertoire of instructional methods. The extent to which students are interested in human or social activities is one such dimension. Research using both the Myers-Briggs Type Inventor (MBTI) and tests of field independence suggest that some people are more attuned to human or social aspects of the environment, more readily remember information about people and social issues, are more interested in learning things that will serve people, and make decisions by considering what's important to people.

Effective instruction addresses both the concrete and the abstract, but students have preferences for which should come first. Research using the MBTI shows that many people-two-thirds to three-quarters of the population, according to some estimates (Carskadon, 1994, p. 73)-prefer inductive approaches that move from the concrete to the abstract. In their study of women's intellectual development, Belenky et al. (1986) found similar concerns about the relationship between the concrete and abstract. They reported that most of their women subjects were adept at using abstractions, but many "balked when the abstractions preceded the experiences or pushed them out entirely" (p. 201).

Much instruction in higher education is conducted at an abstract level, disconnected from practice and experience and stripped of concerns about potential value. If we are to engage students, particularly first-year students, we need different approaches, especially approaches grounded in the concrete that enable students to learn in context. Case studies or scenarios and problem-based learning provide such grounding in a human context.

Case Studies and Scenarios

Case studies tell stories; scenarios present situations. Both have characters and actions, tensions and conflicts, problems and questions. They present relevant background, interactions and the sequence of events up to the point requiring a decision or action. Good case studies or scenarios promote empathy with the central characters; students can see themselves in the situation or story. They also raise questions or issues that students are likely to care about and for which there is no obvious or clear-cut answer.

While writing cases and scenarios may require some skill in storytelling and dialogue, story outlines abound in newspapers, movies, television, the experiences of practitioners in our fields, and in campus life. Disciplinary journals often include cases. The Electronic Hallway ( offers prepared cases focusing on public policy and public administration appropriate for many beginning social science courses. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the State University of New York at Buffalo ( is a rich source for case studies in the sciences.

Two important considerations when using cases or scenarios with first-year students are the complexity of the case and the amount of guidance the instructor provides. Some cases and most scenarios are short-a page or two presenting a fairly structured problem. Others may be quite long, presenting complex stories with all the ambiguity and confusion of real life. Because we do not want to overwhelm students in their first encounters with case methods, it is best to start with shorter, focused cases and scenarios, though even first-year students can handle more complex cases if instructors provide questions and guidance that lead them through the analysis of the case. (For additional suggestions for teaching with cases, see Davis, 1993; Meyers & Jones, 1993; and Weaver, Kowalski, & Pfaller, 1994.)

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) uses many features of instruction discussed so far-small groups, learning in context, real and significant problems and issues to contemplate-but it literally turns instruction around. Instead of teaching students what they need to know and then posing problems or cases in which students explore implications and applications, PBL approaches begin with a problem, and the problem drives what students learn and in what order.

The instructor begins by presenting a problem to students. Compared to other problem-oriented approaches to instruction, PBL problems are ambiguous and unstructured. Not all the information needed is given in the problem or in the text; students must do research, discover new material, and make judgments. Most PBL problems contain controversial issues that elicit different opinions from students.

Working in permanently assigned small groups, students discuss the problem with the aim of determining what they already know that might be relevant to the problem and identifying learning issues: questions they need to address, information they need to gather, sources they wish to consult. Groups prioritize learning issues, divide responsibilities, and gather whatever information they believe they need. At an appointed time, often in class, students return to their groups and share what they have learned. Groups discuss what the new information means, identify further learning issues, and assign learning responsibilities for a second phase. Learning groups repeat the cycle, gradually shifting from assignments to acquire information to assignments to propose and defend solutions or courses of action, until the groups are ready (or required) to submit an analysis, proposal, or solution. (Sample PBL problems may be viewed at More detailed discussions are available in Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001; Wilkerson & Gijselaers, 1996.)

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning approaches-field studies, internships, student-faculty research projects, and service-learning-have been around for a long time. Their increasing appearance in first-year courses is, however, relatively new. Their power to motivate and engage students, integrate theory and practice, develop skills for independent study, and inspire interest in further learning are just as important for first-year students as for others.

Effective experiential learning approaches, like other instruction, should begin with learning goals and experiences identified and structured to serve those goals. Incorporating field experiences in first-year courses requires even more structure and guidance from faculty. We suggest that faculty (1) identify the field experience and make the necessary arrangements, (2) explicitly outline students' responsibilities, (3) require students to keep a journal or log and give specific assignments about what students should record, (4) create assignments that encourage students to reflect on their learning experiences, (5) provide regular opportunities for students to discuss their experiences either in small groups or in class, and (6) develop systematic ways to evaluate student learning from the field experience. (Davis, 1993, and McKeachie, 1999, offer additional suggestions.)

Learning About Content

"What about covering content?" some will ask. "If we incorporate active learning techniques plus try to teach learning strategies, will we be able to cover all the content in our courses? We do not know the answer to that question. Perhaps if students develop more effective study strategies and discover deeper motivation for learning content, they will cover more of it. Then again, perhaps not. We believe, however, that it is folly to try to rush learning in the interest of covering content. Virtually everyone writing about learning research concludes students must be actively involved in all stages of the learning process: setting learning goals, acquiring information, connecting it to what they already know, organizing it in long-term memory and identifying circumstances for retrieval and application in new situations. Those writing about brain research underscore the need to give learning time. The connections students make between new concepts and those they already know involve biological changes in the brain, changes that stabilize only with experience and repeated practice. (For a good introductory summary of the biological basis of learning and the implications for teaching first-year students especially, see Leamnson, 1999.) In short, for learning to last, the learner must be actively involved-and repeatedly so. That takes time.

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