Who’s doing all the work? Who’s having all the fun?

Part 2: Five adaptable steps to active learning

I recently wrote about Barb Stengel’s challenge to ask ourselves “Who’s doing all the work? Who’s having all the fun?” in our classes. I find that Barb’s questions keep me thinking about the fun and work of learning and help me remember that it’s my students who should be having that fun (and doing that work).

I’m really intrigued with learning approaches that have students grapple with problems before instruction, such as productive failure, inventing for future learning, problem-based learning. When done well, with the supports that help keep students moving forward, they absolutely adhere to Barb’s challenge to keep our students working and having fun working. I also think we can apply her questions to help us incorporate active learning in smaller ways too, though.

For example, I teach a segment of a biochemistry course that focuses on common metabolic pathways, including the dreaded citric acid/Krebs cycle. I want my students to know a bit about regulation of the citric acid cycle, but I think it’s pretty pointless to memorize all the regulatory molecules and how they function. Instead, what I do is to tell the students what the regulatory molecules are, one at a time, and ask them to use their understanding of the pathway to predict a) what it would do (effect), b) where it would act (target), and c) how it would do it (mechanism). As I write it out, it sounds pretty complicated, but it draws on things the students already know: which reactions in a pathway are likely to be regulated, how a molecule’s relationship to a pathway predicts its effects on the pathway, and how a molecule’s structure is related to where it binds. Importantly, I want student to recognize that they can think like biochemists, and that they can draw on the pieces of information they have “memorized” (and lord, how I hate that word) to build their understanding of a new system. Of course, they could remember the answers to the questions from their reading, or could do a quick google to find out, but the answers aren’t the point—our discussion centers around their reasoning and why they make the predictions that they do. In this case, they’re doing the work of figuring out why, and (I hope) having the fun of solving the intellectual puzzle.

When I’m planning any active learning exercise like this, I use a model of memory formation based on Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model from 1968. Like any model, it’s imperfect, but it helps me think about the things that I want to do to help my students learn.

The model basically says that we have a stream of sensory information coming at us, and that to learn something, we have to pay attention to it and connect it to something we already know. Thus my job as a teacher has three key steps:

  1. Prompt students pull relevant information that they already know back into their conscious mind (in the diagram, their working memory)
  2. Help students know which new information they should pay attention to
  3. Ask the questions, provide the problems, or give the prompts that help students connect the new information to their existing knowledge.

I’ll add two steps that I think are essential but that don’t perhaps fall as clearly out of the model:

  • Articulate what we’re trying to accomplish (so that students don’t think the goal is to memorize, for example, when I think the goal is to be able to apply principles)
  • Provide space and opportunity for students to make the connections and feedback on their reasoning.

In the biochemistry example, I’m asking students to remember what they know about regulation of metabolic pathways and then use that to interpret a new situation and predict (generate) new answers. I give them time and space in class to discuss their reasoning with colleagues, and then we talk through that reasoning. I use these steps and this model a lot when I’m planning class time, and I think they’re pretty adaptable for helping me think of ways for my students to do the work and have the fun of learning. I’d love to hear your approaches too.

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