Category Archives: learning spaces

Would you like to supersize that? On active learning in large classroom settings

When I first arrived at UBC one of the first classes I taught was a 200 level comparative politics class. For whatever reason (I don’t take it personally) I only had 40 students in a class that is normally capped at 150. Hurrah! It was a new course for me and the average size of my cohort at my last gig was around 35 so my ‘new job and new course’ stress was somewhat reduced.

Having 40 students allowed me to do all sorts of active learning activities in my class: gallery walks, student presentations, small group work/breakout sessions, simulations, debates etc. It also meant that I was able to learn nearly all of my student’s names and engage with them one on one in lectures.  There were also many small assignments that allowed me to gage their performance nearly week by week; I could be responsive with written feedback and my time. For me, teaching this new class was a lot of work but a wonderful experience. Hurrah again!

Then. Reality hit. For another variety of reasons, the size of my 200 level class has pretty much tripled. Last year I had 100 students in this class. When I teach the class next term I will have 150. Comparative politics with Peterson has been supersized. I already learned from last year that active learning activities with 40 students do not translate well to 100 student cohorts—it is not just a matter of needing more handouts or more TAs. The class dynamic changes, the logistics change, the personal touch that makes active learning so valuable seems to diminish as you can’t physically get to the students in the middle of the room, and you simply don’t have time to engage meaningfully with everyone.

Passing a colleage today, fatigued by my current teaching and feeling a bit anxious about next term I joked (?) that I might just go back to ‘chalk and talk’. Well, of course I won’t but I can’t keep doing ‘active learning’ the way I am doing it. I’ve already had a chance this semester to think about how to make my active learning work for a bigger cohort. My Poli 100 (Intro to Politics) cohort has also doubled in size since last year. Here is what I have learned so far.

Make use of the natural leaders in your cohort and nurture new ones

For active learning to work in a large cohort, you need at least 80% of your students totally on board. Because you can’t be everywhere at all times making sure everyone is being ‘active’, peer pressure and accountability to each other has to be built into the activities themselves. Assign already and emerging strong students as leaders or discussants to help you keep everyone on track. Mix students up so these leaders (who often work together) are dispersed throughout the class.   At the same time, don’t rely on them too much. They might relish the challenge but they deserve a break– though they will learn so much by helping other students, they also should be allowed to work with their own peer groups regularly. Also be sure to not to have the same mentors all semester. Try to give as many students as possible this opportunity so they can see the benefits of leadership, grow in confidence and become more likely to ‘buy in’ to active learning in general

Save a tree, use the internet

Nearly all of my active learning pedagogies involve handouts. Often several. With 40 students I could come with a neat little ‘activity pack’ for each group of 5—a few short essentials readings, photocopies of some data, worksheets, paper/pens for post presentations. No biggie! Photocopying, compiling and then dragging 20+ activity packs to class just isn’t an option. Put anything that you would normally put in an ‘activity pack’ for students up online ahead of time and encourage students to bring their laptops to class so they have the materials for the activity already.   Handouts or activity sheets that need to be completed can likely be made as e-forms, that students can complete online and store in their own ‘my grades’ tab. This of course will require more prep time and last minute activity planning will have to go out the window… but that is likely a good thing in and of itself.

Insist on better spaces

Now, UBC has some wonderful learning spaces. But, the class-room-assigning gods were not smiling on me this year. I have tiered lectures theatres with terrible lighting (honestly, one of my rooms has the lighting of an old-school British Pub—think the ‘public toilets bar’ in Manchester on Oxford Rd for those of you who have been there. This room pretty much induces sleep from them moment I walk into it!). I digress. Neither of my rooms this semester have tables to make group easy. My students have to twist and contort to hear and see each other. These rooms are also built on the premise that ‘everything important happens at the front of the room’—meaning all of the wonderful knowledge be produced in every corner of my classroom through my students’ active learning is nearly impossible to share.

Space is a problem at all universities and there is often very little we can do about infrastructure. But we can be advocates for ourselves. Visit other classrooms, make lists of the ones you like and try and insist to the ‘powers that be’ that your pedagogy relies on better space. I haven’t always gotten the ideal room, but I have gotten improvements. Computer systems might do the scheduling, but there is generally a friendly human behind the screen who can help you find something better.

I’ve recently been awarded a small grant to conduct research on active learning and its effectiveness more generally, so if it is a topic that interests you—watch this space!

The Great Outdoors: Part 2 (From Well Being to Ethics)

As classes are now in full swing, my future posts will necessarily focus on what I’m doing inside from here on in, but as a final good bye to summer I will spend a bit more time exploring the outdoor spaces here at UBC.

Following on from last week’s post which focused on using spaces to motivate and inspire students, this week I will look at how outdoor spaces on campus can also be designed to promote student and staff well being, remind readers on how spaces can be used as ‘tangible texts’ to support learning outcomes and discuss the ethics of knowing and learning about our campus spaces.

Recognizing that nature and/or spaces that facilitate calmness are important to students and staff

There is an increasing awareness on the importance of student and staff well-being at universities.  This is a great development given increases in mental health conditions in society more generally and among university staff and students specifically[1].    Of course there are essential services that must be our priority in terms of well-being— resources must be spent on ensuring student and staff health services are properly resourced and that faculty receive support in helping students with both acute and chronic well-being issues.  One’s physical environment, however, can also affect one’s mental health and general well being.[2]

choi BuchananCourtyard

View of my office from the forested area behind it and the internal courtyard of the Buchanan courtyard.

Now here I could just be a total braggart and plaster this blog with the amazing natural spaces which are within and arms reach of me at UBC—I won’t mention the beach here (oops). I work on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world in terms of the nature that surrounds me (the first picture above being taken just outside my office window).  Not every office can look out into a beautiful northern forest,  where an eagle may land on a branch in front of you and engage you in a staring contest (this really did happen to me one day!).  But all campuses could do more to consider the importance of nature or the built environment on the culture and well being of its student/staff body.  This might be especially difficult for city centre campuses with little room to grow or dedicate space to ‘nature’—however the second picture above of the courtyard in our Buchanan complex is an example of a small design feature that incorporates both nature and the built environment in order to transform a fairly bland and industrial place into a beautiful and potentially calming space for students and staff to socialize or study.

As one of my colleagues once said (looking at the day to day schedule of our incoming students)—‘We need to make sure that they have time to just sit under a tree and think’.  Whilst this is perhaps a romantic notion of student life, there was a serious point being made. We must all recognize that students need  time (and space) to to reflect on, internalize and thus learn at a deeper level the materials which are presented to them.  The addition of outdoor study and reflection spaces need not be big or costly.  Again, UBC campus has done well (I think!) to provide spaces for rest and contemplation which are both essential to learning and well being.  Below are examples of just two of these spaces—the giant bean bag chairs outside of our main library and two-person swings which have recently popped up around campus.

swing beanbags

Recognizing the history of place and space as both an intellectual and ethical endeavor

Guests

Picture of one sign that forms part of the ‘Native Hosts’ series by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds

My last picture relates to one of the most important issues related to UBC’s learning spaces.  UBC’s main campus is built on ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people (for more information see http://aboriginal.ubc.ca/community-youth/musqueam-and-ubc/).   This sign, and others like it, are but one reminder of the history of our places of learning.  What needs to be said about this important fact can not be said in a short blog piece—I would do a great disservice to try and summarize the history of this First Nation, Canada’s colonial history, contemporary injustices,  and ongoing attempts to resolve these in the political, legal and cultural spheres.

What I do want to use this blog piece to do is to remind staff and students of the importance of engaging with the history of spaces in which we have the privilege to spend our days.  The justification for this is twofold.  First, exploring the history of our buildings and campuses provide another set of tangible texts and easily accessible case studies through which we can make our often abstract lessons ‘come alive’.  Whether your campus is has been built on a site with a rich and contested social  history, next to or on key industrial sites, or at the epicenter of a relatively new urban environment, the birth and growth of your own institutions can themselves be treated as  unique and fascinating ‘texts’   that can be linked to your class’s learning outcomes.   For example, the above signs became a subject of inquiry for UBC art history students, resulting in an excellent paper written and published by an undergraduate on their history and significance.[3]

The second justification for this is of course an ethical one.   Many campuses (particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand) have been built on Aboriginal lands.  In other places, campuses might exist on land that certain groups consider to be unjustly ‘occupied’, and still others will see university campuses as sites of elitism, symbolic of wider societal stratification.   Being aware of these histories,  being honest about the ways in which are campuses may historically or presently  exclude some groups in our societies (and indeed trying to rectify this) is an ethical imperative both in terms of being a ‘good’ in and of itself, but also in terms of being able to seek truth, knowledge in the widest sense of those words.  Universities must be more inclusive if they are to survive and be relevant in the future.  Confronting the histories and ongoing structural inequalities that exist in our spaces of learning is first step in this process.

[1] Many  blogs aimed at university faculty discuss issues of well being and it increasingly being covered in the popular press.  See for example the ‘Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia’ http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university.  There is a growing body of literature exploring these issues in the student body as well.  I have found the following quite interesting Lu, SH et. al. (2014) ‘An internet survey of emotional health, treatment seeking and barriers to accessing mental health treatment among Chinese- speaking international students in Australia’ Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(1): 96-108. El Ansari, W and Stock C (2010) ‘Is the Health and Wellbeing of University Students Associated with their Academic Performance?’  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7: 509-527.

[2] http://ontario.cmha.ca/news/the-nurture-of-nature-the-health-benefits-of-nature/#.U_YsJ_ldVqU

[3] Halls, Catherine (2010) ‘Today your host is speaking out:  Ideology, Identity, and the Land in Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Native Hosts.’ UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History, Issue 1.

The Great Outdoors: Part One

The inspiration for my first blog post comes from an ongoing research interest of mine as well as some of my other ‘duties’ at the university.  At the moment, I am working on a project with a colleague related to answering the question ‘Where is Peace?’.   I have also been part of the Jump Start programme here at UBC—a two week induction programme aimed primarily but not exclusively at international students.  Here I am working with colleagues to help students adjust to being in a new ‘place’ (Vancouver) and what for them will also be a very new  ‘space’  (a university setting).[1]

On top of this, I have set myself a challenge of getting outside for at least 20 minutes during my work day as both a mental and physical break whilst I juggle (like we all do) a range of tasks.  OK, if I’m honest, having a legitimate reason to wander around campus and enjoy the last few days of summer has been central to the choice of my introductory post (‘I’m working on my blog about innovative teaching, not just skiving off for a pleasant walk– honest’).

I realized that all of these tasks involved thinking about space—how we define it, how we use it and how it influences us.  It struck me how we, in our busy lives as academics and students, running from class to class, meeting to meeting, take for granted the spaces in which we spend a not unsubstantial part of our adult lives.  The aim is to get us talking about how spaces at our universities do or do not facilitate student learning. I hope to challenge universities and the people who populate them to think about how spaces can be improved to both motivate students and facilitate learning outcomes.

So, my first two blog posts will explore the characteristics of outdoor spaces that can help facilitate learning.   Next week I will carry on with this theme and discuss the importance of exploring nature and the built environment in this regard as well as coming to terms with the history of our campuses.

Using spaces to remind students of the purpose of academic endeavors

There are many reasons why students come to university and why academics have chosen to focus on their particular areas of research.  These are often highly personal and range from the economic to the altruistic, to simply an often inexplicable fascination with a particular topic.  Unfortunately, staff and students often find their motivation for being here  waning (particularly at the end of term when we are all fatigued  and/or stressed and/or disappointed with our progress). Feeling disillusioned with various aspects of higher education, it is easy for us to loose site of our original motivation and our essential task.   I also find that students  often lose sight of the purpose of learning itself as they (necessarily at times) focus on the material they need to know for a specific test or paper, losing sight of the original motivation for their studies as they strive for excellence on individual pieces of work.

Wisdom

‘Wisdom’ rock outside C.K. Choi building—part of installment displaying 5 Confucius characters

flag

‘Start an Evolution’ flag—found all around campus (note: personal urge to add an ‘r’ to these flags)

For me, as I enter my office I am provided with a very tangible reminder of what I am here to do.  A small rock garden just outside my building presents five Chinese characters  based on the basic principles of Confucius.  The one I encounter first each morning represents wisdom and knowledge.  A gentle reminder of this several times a day as I head out to classes and meetings is a useful motivator.  A similar reminder comes from flags scattered around the campus, which encourage students to ‘Start an Evolution’ (I myself always imagine an ‘r’ in front of this, but I digress).

If we think about the breadth, depth and quantity of material we throw at our students every week,  taking a few moments or finding ways to bring the conversations back to the ‘wider prize’ may be useful.

Using spaces to inspire students on the importance  of their academic endeavors and as a tangible set of ‘tangible texts’ to study

Linked to the above, I have noticed how several spaces on campus have been used and designed to inspire students to achieve excellence in specific subject areas as well.  The random allotment of my teaching space for my Critical Peace Studies seminar last semester was particularly inspiring.  Teaching in the law school, as no rooms were available in the buildings where most Political Science courses are taught, required my students and I to walk over and past a range of sayings related to peace and justice—just two of which can be seen below.

peacebench1 peacebench2Benches on my way into the law school where I taught critical peace studies, engraved with various sayings, including ‘the most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’

I imagine this is where some readers might scoff at the ‘warm fuzzy’ sentiment behind this reflection (yes you, the Realist in the corner!). However, it was more than a simple reminder for me and my students about the importance of achieving success in our studies—it also provided concrete learning opportunities that contributed to my learning outcomes.  These quotes were discussed and debated on the first day of class as we explored (as per the course syllabus) competing definitions of peace (physical vs structural violence,  ‘just peace’ vs stability).  In fact, my students also identified over a dozen further ‘tangible texts’ on campus that signified different definitions and intellectual understandings of peace and security.

The potential of spaces to be used to remind students of the key intellectual debates and developments in their field, not only as inspiration but as another set of ‘tangible texts’ that teach students something discipline specific is another area of consideration for those able to influence campus planning.  Challenging students to not only to identify these texts themselves but to also debate and discuss these texts that are present in campus spaces is a great learning activity that exposes students’ creative and intellectual capabilities.

….Join me next week for more on outdoor spaces at UBC and how they contribute to positive learning environments and help us meet our learning objectives……

[1] My colleague in geography, Dr Siobhan McPhee does a fantastic 30 second lecture on the difference between place and space should anyone want to discuss the finer points of this conceptual distinction