Donna Dahlgren, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast, leads her students in a group exercise, which is part of a research project to enhance their learning. --credit
Donna Dahlgren, an assistant professor of psychology at IU Southeast, is leading a team of faculty colleagues in a project to dramatically recast P101 and other large lectures by incorporating active learning group activities. "If you do straight lecture in big classes, they pretty much fall asleep on you. I never liked teaching large lecture classes, so usually I would try to teach in smaller classrooms," Dahlgren says. "Then I finally decided large classes weren't that much different. I just had to break students up into smaller groups. If I had the activities truly controlled, I could have the same impact as I would on a much smaller class."
Dahlgren focused on the freshman-level lecture class because of her personal frustration with the quality of student learning and retention. "I felt really discontent with the fact that they would just sit there and not interact and not ask questions." Dahlgren soon committed to ensuring that her first-year students would have a positive experience. "We might only keep them for one semester. I wanted to try to make the class experience as academically invigorating as possible to motivate them to stay."
First, she read existing studies of learning styles to understand the dramatic change students experience when they start college classes. "When they come from high school, they're used to a very passive role, to be quiet, not ask questions, not disrupt the teacher. They come to us not realizing that college is supposed to be a more exciting, invigorating, intellectual atmosphere. They're supposed to ask questions and probe, but they don't know it, and we weren't helping them by lecturing at them."
Because Dahlgren's specialty is cognitive psychology, her insights into how the mind thinks, learns, and remembers also helped her design course activities. "As a memory psychologist, I know what you have to do with the material to get you to remember it. I know that if I can get them to process it more deeply, I can get them to remember it, whether they want to or not. Anything that causes them to elaborate on the principles will cause deeper processing, which will lead to deeper memory. But most of them won't do that without prompting. They don't realize that that's helpful."
The teaching literature told Dahlgren that if she wanted collaborative, participatory students, she had to design activities, homework, and classroom time so they had no choice but to do them. "If I want them to interact with me more, then I have to give them fodder to interact with. I started assigning more required reading so they can be prepared to do the activities," she said. "They know, when I say 'you have to have this read by then,' that part of the activity is going to depend on that knowledge. If they don't read it ahead of time, they'll have to spend time after class catching up. It gets them reading earlier than the night before the test, too."
Because IU Southeast is a commuter campus, socializing during and between classes is even more important than at a residential campus. "Even though the group activities make them all a little bit rowdier and they talk more, they come to class more often. Whatever gets them there, they'll benefit from what we give them while they're in there."Dahlgren and her co-researchers, Deborah Finkel and Diane Wille, both associate professors of psychology, created a series of activities concentrating on the core concepts that students must gain from the class. The activities also serve as diagnostics. "These students don't come with really strong study skills. The activities help them learn what they need to know. If they don't know something but everyone else in their group does, they can see what they need to pay attention to. It helps them to self-assess sooner."
Dahlgren's research includes her current work in which she examines why people have "Tip-of-the Tongue" experiences (TOTs). She has conducted a series of studies to examine the effects of age and vocabulary level on the number of TOTs experienced. --credit
Dahlgren herself used the new class format last year. This semester, six sections are using the learning group activities in a wider test of the technique's feasibility. "Ultimately, we're hoping we'll all be using it, if it continues to work. At the end of each semester we assess the data to see what worked, what didn't, and how can we modify that," she explains.
Grades are not necessarily Dahlgren's measure of the format's validity. "When we did a grade comparison, we found no differences. We're focusing on the variables that might influence retention: level of participation of the students, faculty-student interaction, and student-student interaction. So many things influence grades besides what you do in class," Dahlgren says.
"We did find significant differences in how active the students felt in class, how much they participated, how much interaction they felt they got with the instructor. We found some indication of better retention in the two classes that used the group activities: more of those students took all four exams. Over the course of the semester we thus kept more of our students in class," she continues.
"This year we tracked the students to see which ones came back, to begin to look at long-term measures," she adds. The study also asks students whether they think they gained an ability to use psychology to solve real-life problems. "That seems to be effective, too. So we have included more activities where they have to think about how they'd use it in the real world."
Dahlgren, Finkel, and Wille received funding from the Lilly Introductory Course Revision Grant and the IU Southeast Summer Faculty Fellowships to develop and test the new course. The team will present the results of the experiment at the Lilly Conference on College Teaching in Oxford, Ohio, and is developing a paper for publication.
Visiting Dahlgren's section of P101 on a random day, the shift in attention and excitement became obvious as the time for group activity approached. The class began with a lecture on sensation and perception in which Dahlgren explained the structures in the human eye and how vision is transmitted to the brain. Then, as a transition to the group activity, the class watched a short film about a woman who wore special glasses that flipped her view upside down, and how she normalized her perception in a week's time. Then Dahlgren distributed to the teams special glasses similar to the ones used in the film, and students conducted experiments while wearing the glasses, such as tossing paper balls to each other and writing their names.
First-year business major Shawna Patterson and her friends said the group activities helped her with the lecture topics. "We cover a lot more material in here in one day than we did in one week in high school," she says. "The activities get us more involved, let us talk about the ideas the professor explained, and help us understand them better."
So in this particular class, those eighty pairs of eyes had a lot more to do than stare into space--thanks to Dahlgren's initiative.
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