Model for active learning

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Rubin, L., & Hebert, C. (1998, Winter98). Model for active learning. College Teaching, 46(1), 26. Retrieved April 10, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.


Collaborative Peer Teaching

Active learning has a long and distinguished history--from the dialogue of Socrates, to Rabelais's model Renaissance education of Gargantua, to Dewey's reflective thinking (1930s), to Bruner's discovery method (1960s). Again and again, the idea of learners getting involved in their learning, instead of passively receiving information from an instructor, has been considered the essence of education. No doubt good teachers have always known that learning is enhanced when students get involved--to discover, manipulate, or personalize information. To be sure, teacher-centered instruction, such as lecture, has the advantage of communicating information in a complete, orderly form. However, student-centered methods, such as discussion, are considered more effective in developing higher-order intellectual skills, such as synthesis and problem-solving (Bloom 1953, 167-69).

Indeed, recent empirical studies have found student-centered methods to be superior to teacher-dominated practices in the following respects: "application of concepts, problem solving, attitude, motivation, group membership and leadership skills . . ." (McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin, and Smith as quoted in Sorcinelli 1991, 17). Among the various active learning methods, collaborative learning and peer teaching are particularly encouraging. In fact, Gerlach (1994,9) makes the point that "collaborative learning environments have many advantages for students' intellectual and social development . . . ," while McKeachie et al. maintain that one of the most effective methods of teaching overall is "students teaching other students" (Sorcinelli 1991, 17). In our classes, we experimented with collaborative peer teaching--combining the two approaches, with groups of students negotiating ways of running a class and eventually teaching other students.

The idea of collaborative peer teaching is supported by three theoretical perspectives. According to the first, the cognitive approach, which focuses on strategies of information processing, learning is maximized when students "act on information in ways that make it more meaningful," such as organizing it, making their own connections with it, and applying it to new contexts (Svinicki 1991, 30). An example is for students to actively work with course material, devising ways of conveying it to their classmates. The second perspective, motivational theory, is concerned with how learning is "initiated and sustained"; it advocates giving "responsiblity for learning back to the students," and using innovative methods (Forsyth and McMillan 1991, 55, 63). Collaborative peer teaching does both. Finally, from the third perspective, the social context, the kind of environment most conducive to learning is thought to be "dialogue," characterized by interaction and cooperation. Teachers need to share responsibility for the course with students: give them a say in the details of the syllabus or permit them to "plan certain segments of the course, to make class presentations under (the teacher's) guidance, or to suggest and arrange for discussion topics, etc." (Billson and Tiberius 1991, 93). In sum, collaborative peer teaching, endorsed by all three theoretical viewpoints, appears to be promising.

The benefits of the method accrue not only to the peer teachers but to the student audience as well. Many educators believe, and some research shows, that students learn more in a secure, cooperative classroom atmosphere. They are more willing to take "responsibility for (their) educational experience" than they would be in a traditional learning situation where they are dependent on and subordinate to the teacher. In addition, being innovative both in its shift of the usual teacher/student roles and in the variety provided by different student leaders and presentation modes, the method motivates students and sparks their interest (Forsyth and McMillan 1991, 55, 63).

Three Class Experiments

In spring semester of 1996, we wrote into the course syllabi in three courses (Rubin, freshman composition and American Studies; Hebert, International Diversity) the requirement that groups of students would teach a class at some point in the semester. Originally, the impetus for peer teaching came from a presentation at ISETA (The International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives) in October 1995, by Jacqueline Mintz of Berkeley, entitled "Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn: Instructor and Students Share a Course." Determined to put into practice her belief in letting students make decisions about their education, Mintz created a structure for a comparative literature course in which, for two thirds of the course, she modeled ways to teach a play. Subsequently, groups of four or five students were responsible for selecting a play for their classmates to read and for planning the activities of the class sessions in which the play would be taught. The course was very successful, with students evaluating both the project and the instructor highly.

We adapted the Mintz approach to our classes. Like Mintz, we organized the presentations to suit the formats and contents of our classes. For instance, Rubin used five groups of four and five students, one group for each assigned novel, while Hebert assigned four groups of four students, each taking over a full 75-minute period during the last two weeks of the semester. We applied similar criteria to evaluate student performance--quality of presentation, creativity of design, engagement of the class--but weighted the projects differently: Rubin valued them at 5 percent of course grade and Hebert at 15 percent. We modeled appropriate ways to present and explore similar subject material before students were expected to teach their classmates.

In a real sense, then, students were not left to figure out the method on their own, but were able to consult guidelines and observe similar lessons. In addition, during the preparation time we acted as consultants by advising the groups, at times pushing them to carry their investigations further or to devise questions more likely to stimulate critical inquiry. During a class, however, students taught students with the teacher in the background, as a member of the student audience. Wishing to foster greater student responsibility, we rarely assumed a teacherly role.

Rubin's Courses: Freshman Composition and American Studies

In the freshman composition course--a required class with an enrollment of twenty-two--students were developing their writing skills by performing a sequence of assignments about Native American culture, two of which were based on Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller, a collection of stories, legends, and memoirs. The American Studies course--a writing-intensive, diversity-focused, general education course in the humanities with an enrollment of twenty-three--took as its content multicultural autobiographies, five texts written by Native American, Latino, and Asian American writers. Students read, wrote responses in journals, and discussed the texts.

On the first day of class, I introduced the project, with the rationale that collaborative peer teaching is a good way to learn and gives students an active role. The syllabus explained the basics of the project: students in groups would teach one session of the course, basing their lesson on an assigned reading; they would choose the reading session they wanted to do, and the methods to use in conveying the material. They would be awarded points toward their grade for their work.

A second handout gave more detailed guidelines. For the main activity, peer teachers could choose from the following options: (1) a discussion, in which they asked students beforehand to perform a task with the text--finding an image or quotation of interest, raising a question that perplexed them, or drawing a visual representation of an idea; (2) a debate in which they asked students to take sides on an issue suggested by the text; (3) role play, in which they asked students to take on roles of characters and respond "in character" to questions posed by the class.

In American Studies, the peer-taught classes would be conducted on the last day of a series of sessions devoted to an autobiography and could focus on any and all aspects of that text. In freshman composition, the peer-taught lessons, used in the middle of the semester, would all relate to the text, Storyteller, with teachers selecting the particular reading to be used as well as designing and presenting the lesson. The peer-taught classes would be evaluated by the class just after they were taught, and the evaluations shared with the class; in addition, students would make a summary assessment at the end of the semester.

When they learned of the peer-teaching assignment, students responded with some trepidation. Very few expressed pleasure or confidence at the prospect of teaching a class. Reading their responses, I, too, wondered whether this experiment was a good idea, and I experienced some fears of my own. As the first peer-teaching days approached, I recall much anxiety on the part of the first teaching group in both courses, with teachers consulting me a good deal. After the initial lesson went successfully, however, students began to relax--some later groups so much that they didn't prepare as seriously as the early ones.

Lessons and Evaluations

Students used a variety of approaches with varying degrees of success. Most popular in American Studies were the inventive lessons that engaged students in lively, unusual activities. For example, a successful lesson on Bless Me, Ultima was a quiz game, in which teams of students competed to answer questions that the teachers had prepared about the book. Although most of these were short-answer identification types, there were also two essay questions--one asking students to predict the future of the character and give reasons from the book for their judgment, the other to explain a quote and apply it to their own lives. Another successful lesson was that on China Boy, where the teachers asked five volunteers to enact the roles of pre-selected characters in the book and to answer questions "in character" posed by other students. In preparation, the volunteers worked with other students who helped them recall the information. Classmates enjoyed the originality of the lessons and the amount of learning that had taken place. In their evaluations, the class gave the two lessons high marks.

Two lessons were organized as debates, in which teachers asked students to take sides on issues such as, "Were the interned Japanese compensated adequately for what they had suffered?" Students in the two groups developed their points and rebutted those of the other side. At the end, one teacher judged each side and declared a winner. Another lesson asked students to compete in finding parallels between two books on Native American experience, Black Elk Speaks and Lakota Woman; this lesson was perceived as unsuccessful.

In the freshman composition course, students especially appreciated the activities that asked them, usually as a group, to do an original writing related to the stories in Storyteller: to write a new ending in "Yellow Woman" or to re-create in a contemporary setting the plots of the legend in "Up North" and in the tragic story of "Lullaby." They also enjoyed certain other dramatic features: the debate format used with the story "Rain Clouds," the drawing of an image from "Up North," the quiz show motif used with "Uncle Tony's Goat."

Conversely, negative comments concerned lack of involvement of the class, lack of respect (in the debate), and disorganization. The discussions were generally less well received than the other activities. The first four of the five lessons received high ratings, and the final one received a lower evaluation.

Despite their earlier misgivings, students in both courses gave peer teaching a positive evaluation. They responded with real enthusiasm to the creative lessons of game shows, role playing, and writing their own endings. On midterm evaluations, when asked to name valuable features of the class, half of the students in the composition course mentioned the peer-taught classes. In a final evaluation, every single student said that peer teaching should be used again. On the other hand, students criticized some lessons for not involving the class or for repetition. In a final evaluation, many students in American Studies observed that teachers could have been better prepared, confirming my perception that students had not put in enough effort in developing the lessons.

Hebert's Course: International Diversity: Focus on Asian Cultures

While Rubin's project focused on having groups of students plan ways of teaching specific segments of assigned readings, mine centered around students working out ways of researching and teaching about an Asian country of their choice. Consequently, our experiments diverged to a degree in planning and implementation, though not in basic philosophy. Foremost, the projects in my class did not involve the level of shared knowledge Rubin's classes enjoyed and, hence, did not provide the same extent of student participation.

Instead, students developed special areas of knowledge, which required several weeks of preparation--both collaborative and individual--at the end of which students in groups presented their findings to uninformed classmates. Even so, the lessons were to include a student-centered component, for each group was expected to provide an interesting story, article, or video as a homework assignment to create an area of common understanding. Another contrast is that Rubin's lessons were evenly spaced through the semester, while mine were grouped at the end. This arrangement may have worked to the advantage of Rubin's students in that later groups had time to make adjustments on their lessons. Nevertheless, Rubin's and my experiments in collaborative peer teaching show a number of similarities--in the overall preparation as well as in the outcomes.

Like Rubin, and as Forsyth and McMillan (1991,55) advocate, I gave the responsibility for learning to the students. My handout focused on collaborative work, overall format of the class, types of suitable activities, and forms of evaluation. In particular, it pointed out that the group was to collaborate in selecting a country and in deciding what aspects to share with their classmates. Together they needed to determine what research had to be done, what materials were needed, who would be responsible for specific areas of content, what information was appropriate, and how they would best present the material to the class. In addition, they would have to meet several times to keep each other informed and to negotiate any adjustments.

Furthermore, as Billson and Tiberius (1991,93) suggest, and again like Rubin, I advised the groups to use a class format I had used and proposed several suitable, familiar activities. Specifically, I suggested a four-tiered organization, including a ten-minute warm-up period during which the group could engage their classmates by asking for keywords or associations for "their" country. Next, the group would present mini-lectures, using visual aids and handouts if they wished.

I suggested that they include a reflection period, during which they would hold a twenty-minute conversation with the class to involve all students in the learning process. They could, for example, ask their classmates to talk about similarities and/or differences between their respective countries; or they could have several groups write questions to connect the mini-lectures and the reading or video assignment; or ask them to review the main points of the mini-lectures and make connections with China, Japan, or India. Finally, the last ten minutes of the class were to be set aside for various types of evaluations, including that of partners, class assessment of individual presenters, and class evaluation of the group.

Lessons and Evaluations

Unlike Rubin's, my guidelines stipulated that peer-taught classes were to strike a balance between presentation of new material and dialogue among participants and presenters. Hence, one important part of the lessons was the mini-lectures. On their assigned day the four members of a group took turns presenting various aspects of their chosen country. On the whole, students found that a good change of pace from one-person lectures. One popular approach, taken by all four groups, was to give an overview of the land and its geography as well as an introduction to the history of the people--although I often found the historical parts too general and listlike.

On the whole, however, students did not seem terribly taken by the content of the mini-lectures, at least not sufficiently so to elaborate on the choice of topics. Assessments showed that most of them focused more on the social aspect of the process than on subject and content. For example, the audience highly praised one group of teachers who appeared unusually relaxed and attempted some jokes. Furthermore, students were sensitive to the use of visuals, such as maps--giving high marks to presenters who kept going back to their map and pointing at specific places--or names printed on the board and handouts with a country's vital statistics, but only if teachers made repeated and clear references to them.

They were also impressed by some presenters' delivery: how easily one group moved from speaker to speaker, while another group was plagued by awkward moments of silence; how some presenters spoke freely with few notes while others read in a monotone voice from a typed script; or how some teachers appeared to be totally absorbed by and isolated within their information, while others made eye contact with the audience. Altogether, the audience's focus on process, instead of content, is quite noteworthy, especially since, in the role of teachers, they seemed to be very much aware of their own and their group's cognitive growth and achievements, as we shall see later.

With regard to class participation, the second component of the peer-teaching project, both teachers and students found fault with it; however, the two groups did not agree about the reason for the shortcomings. Students were unanimous in pointing out a pervasive imbalance between presentations and dialogue. And students were disappointed with what they perceived as their partial exclusion from participation.

Self-assessments and evaluations of partners, however, tell another story: Without exception the teachers saw themselves as having made efforts toward involving their classmates--they had asked for keywords, had prepared questionnaires and quizzes, and had invited questions from the audience--but students had remained unresponsive. "These people are dead," one exasperated soul jotted down.

The real problem was that only two groups managed to make an article or a video available for students to read or view, and this on such short notice that only one student did an assignment. That failure was quite disturbing because it seemed to foil the whole process of class participation based on shared reading or viewing material. With the audience having little prior knowledge about the country being introduced, the presenters found it doubly difficult to involve the class actively.

Nevertheless, all four groups tried to engage their classmates, with varying success. One group began by handing out a true/false list of stereotypes and common beliefs about Siberia, which they tabulated and responded to during a reflection period. Another group asked for keywords about Afghanistan, later elaborating on them in their presentations. A little later, that group, unhappy about the class's failure to read their chosen article about the mujahadeen, divided the class into small groups and instructed them to review what they had learned from the mini-lectures and ask questions or make comments if they wished. Unfortunately, the last two groups were less successful at involving the class, failing to make good use of a prepared quiz or questionnaire.

Overall, then--like Rubin's lessons--my peer-taught classes met with both praise and criticisms. Criticisms, on the one hand, reflected unmet expectations of both teachers and students: students feeling excluded by the peer teachers and teachers being frustrated by their unresponsive audience. Praise, on the other hand, was extended to many areas: learning from peers, speaking in public, doing research, working successfully in groups, learning about Asian countries, changing the pace through mini-lectures, experiencing personal growth, and finding imaginative ways to involve classmates. Also on the positive side, all fifteen students thought I should use the peer-teaching method again. Such unanimity about a project that required much work outside of class struck me as quite remarkable, considering the time pressures of commuting students with jobs, several of whom had mentioned difficulty meeting their group.

Benefits to Teachers and Students

Although the lessons and their evaluations portrayed an activity that was largely successful but also had weaknesses, responses on questionnaires indicated that the whole process of teaching was constructive for students, both in their roles as teachers and as audience. In particular, teachers gained two kinds of awareness, social and intellectual. First, they found that patterns that were previously habitual and unconscious could be evaluated and changed. Aware of the needs of both teacher and learner, former teachers gained empathy, which often translated into a desire to improve the student/teacher dynamic in the future. Second, students became conscious of their own intellectual and interpersonal skills.

Not surprisingly, teachers perceived the roles of teacher and student differently. Seventy-five percent of the students observed that teaching was harder than they had expected. The primary challenge they mentioned was managing their classmates--keeping their attention, getting them to respond, keeping them happy, and also--in Hebert's class--getting them to do their assignments. Next was the amount of preparation and effort that went into teaching. In their characterizations of students, a strong majority of respondents pointed out deficiencies: most frequently, lack of courtesy and respect, lack of motivation and effort, and inattentiveness but also excessive demands and impatience. Again, when asked what had surprised them about the experience, 45 percent of Rubin's and 30 percent of Hebert's classes returned to the perceived difficulties of teaching--getting attention, keeping control, being prepared, and managing time.

Former teachers became sensitive and sympathetic to their peer teachers and to teachers in general. Often the feeling of empathy moved them one more step, into action or the intention to act--to be helpful to the teacher. Thus, students' new awareness and empathy suggest that they may become active partners in the teaching-learning process sooner than they would have otherwise.

Also, teachers expressed pride in their accomplishments and new skills. Some were pleased with "mastering" a body of knowledge, "figuring out how to present it," and "think(ing) it through logically and thoroughly." Others expressed great satisfaction for having prevailed over an unresponsive audience, i.e. not breaking down, but "improvising" when their classmates failed to respond. Rubin's teachers also described personal success: "Because it was such a positive experience I think I will have an easier time speaking to groups now." Clearly, for the teachers the peer-teaching process was an empowering experience.

Similarly, the student audience, as questionnaires revealed, also benefited. Rubin's students found the method beneficial for learning in several ways. They noticed both intellectual gains and positive social aspects that enhanced learning: "There is more participation because there is no authority figure." Despite the less-interactive class format, many of Hebert's students, nevertheless, found value for learning in the presentations. Evidently, listening to student-teachers helped them be "involved" and "pay attention more," in part because they felt more "relaxed" and "comfortable" during peer-taught lessons. Unwittingly, students thus reiterated the three values--cognitive, motivational, social--mentioned in our introduction, which are fostered by collaborative peer teaching and which lead to active learning.

To sum up, we believe that the approach is worth using. In fact, it would be hard to think of another method that would enable so much intellectual, social, and personal growth. Even so, the technique can be improved. In all classes, peer teachers should be required to prepare open-ended, essay-type questions (not just factual ones) to stimulate more thoughtful responses. In addition, to encourage student participation, the teachers should have the opportunity to give quizzes and/or to evaluate the performance of the students, giving them a grade that would be included with their other course grades. Finally, the teachers should assign the reading material and make it available to students well ahead of (three weeks before) the lesson, and the class instructor should monitor the process repeatedly to ensure that it happens.

With these improvements the peer-teaching approach could be used in courses outside the humanities, like mathematics and science. In a calculus class, for example, the method is suitable for exploring problem-solving techniques. A group of peer teachers, responsible for presenting to and/or eliciting from their student audience approaches to solving a word problem would follow guidelines provided by the instructor. The teachers could then restate the problem in explicit terms, describing what is known, what is implied, and what is to be found out. They could list on the board all the possible steps and lead a discussion. Or groups of students could collaborate in solving another word problem and report on approach and rationale, with the goal of identifying strategies that do and don't work. Thanks to the supportive style created by a democratic classroom, teachers and students could stimulate each other in problem solving, and the instructor could become aware of students' misconceptions and difficulties.

In a chemistry course, peer teaching could also be effective. The teachers could develop a variety of techniques to engage their classmates in learning concepts of chemistry. They could present mini-lectures on a chemical compound like diethyl ether. The professor's guidelines could advise them to present the information according to the traditional organizing pattern of the field--from structure to function, from principles to illustrations. Drawing on information they had gathered from the Internet, teachers and students could collaborate during the session to generate a list of current uses of ether. A quiz could ask students to describe how to create the compound. Thus, peer teachers would foster other students' knowledge of chemistry through motivating activities in a relaxed atmosphere. Peer teaching is a flexible method that can be used profitably in a variety of disciplines.


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By Lois Rubin and Catherine Hebert

Lois Rubin is an associate professor of English, and Catherine Hebert is an assistant professor of French at Penn State University, New Kensington campus.

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