Active learning methods for week intensive MSc modules

Dr Stefán Thór Smith, School of the Built Environment
s.t.smith@reading.ac.uk
Year(s) of case study activity: 2014-15

Overview

8977Active learning methods were explored, and the Environmental Quality and Well-being module (CEM236EQW), a week intensive module offered by the School of the Built Environment, was amended to incorporate suitable active learning methods, improving student satisfaction and engagement.

Objectives

  • Determine what students perceive to be the most effective methods of active learning.
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of current practices.
  • Identify alternative practices and evaluate potential advantages and disadvantages.
  • Feed findings into updating module material, delivery, and course content.

Context

CEM236EQW had been taught without any formal active learning components, though the course lectures were structured with examples to provide authentic context. Tutorial sessions and assessed assignments highlighted a lack of engagement with course material, with little evidence of the desired level of critical understanding of the theory and its application. This was reflected in the grades that students enrolled on the module received.

Despite issues with performance, student feedback was generally positive, with comments praising the lectures, assignments, content and structure of the module. There was a suggestion, however, that students were keen to have more active learning opportunities to help bring out the relevance of the subject to built environment design and management.

Implementation

It was necessary to first establish which active learning methods would be most appropriate for use in a week intensive module such as CME236EQW. Semi-structured interviews with staff and focus group discussions with students both indicated that discursive based sessions were an effective active learning method for use in a module such as CME236EQW. Further to this, two examples of highly successful collaborative based activities were highlighted. As a result, the format of these collaborative activities was able to be adapted to design and carry out a collaborative learning session.

The learning task for the module was broken down into its various topics; small student groups were assigned a topic to cover and present on, allowing them to collectively cover and develop a substantial amount of important material.

Six student pairs were each given a specific environmental factor to investigate. The environmental factors were allocated randomly. A mid-week study session was planned into the module timetable to give the students the opportunity to focus on the set activity, and to provide a formal time for asking questions and seeking clarification from the module convenor. Useful material was made available on the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment to give further guidance on the type of documents with which it was expected the students would engage, and also to provide reference to further resources to help support their research. At the end of the week, students gave a 10 minute presentation on their allocated topics to the other students. These presentations were then followed by a question and discussion period.

Impact

The feedback regarding the active learning components of the module were overwhelmingly positive, as students enjoyed taking a more active role in their own learning. Students were more engaged with the module material, and the presentations that the students produced were impressive in their delivery and content.

Reflections

Having the mid-week study session was beneficial as it helped manage expectations around the available support, but also helped ensure that there was a dedicated time in the students’ calendars to be able to work in their pairings.

The presentations that the students produced at the end of the week were all very impressive in terms of delivery and content, and indicated that the students had put considerable effort into the activity and engaged with the topic at a deep level. The question and discussion periods, however, did not entirely produce the results that had been desired, and the module convenor often had to instigate and lead the discussion. In future, it will be necessary for there to be greater planning of the discussion element of the activity, so that students are explicitly made aware of the need to prepare for and engage in questions and discussion following every presentation.

Follow up

Following the success of the pilot scheme, active learning methods will continue to be a central aspect of CME236EQW, and have been extended within the module.

In order to address the failure of the question and discussion periods following presentations, students are now to be assigned a topic other than their own on which to prepare and ask questions. This is intended to increase students’ engagement with their peers’ presentations, and create debate on the topics discussed.

There will also be more active learning on the topic of measurement of environmental quality, which is an important aspect of the module. Part of this will be a half-day visit to the National Physical Laboratory to learn about the development of air quality, thermal and acoustic measuring tools.

In order to have students reflect upon their own knowledge, prior to the module they will take an online quiz, allowing subsequent lectures to be informed by a better understanding of students’ existing knowledge.

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