The headlines coming out of higher education have made it clear: student disengagement is on the rise. So how exactly do you ensure every one of your students is tuned in and adequately able to demonstrate what they do and don’t know? Professor Morgan Taylor faced this challenge head-on by wholeheartedly embracing her mantra, ‘if you can teach it, you know it.’ For Taylor, that has meant helping her students learn from—not just with—their peers.
Taylor, Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Georgia, offers her three pieces of advice for faculty looking to tap into peer-to-peer and collaborative learning in any course.
Embrace the ‘10-minute rule’
A red flag should automatically go up if you’re met with blank stares when asking if anyone has a question during lecture. Like many, Taylor became frustrated when students would affirm that they understood the concepts covered in class, but performed poorly on their exams. Today, she uses a ‘10-minute rule’ that serves as a gentle wake up call for students who may be distracted or those who need a refresher on what was just covered.
Taylor teaches two sections of Principles of Microeconomics to nearly 700 freshmen and two sections of Intermediate Microeconomics to 100 upper-year students per semester. No matter class size, she’s found that this simple mechanism keeps all students on their toes. “As the professor, you’re very steeped in this material. After ten minutes of me speaking, I might ask students to discuss a formula in small groups or use a simple call-and-response technique,” Taylor says.
She also encourages physical movement in her classes to draw students in. For instance, if she’s delivering a lecture on supply and demand trends, Taylor might ask students to physically point upwards or downwards when asking, “when price increases, quantity demanded goes ____.” Opportunities for collaboration that also function as pulse checks allow students to expose their own learning gaps and ensure they have plenty of time to get comfortable with concepts before exam day. Top Hat makes it easy to get a read on knowledge gaps with low-stakes quizzes that offer instant feedback.
Take the stress out of participation and collaboration
Not all students feel comfortable raising their hand in a large introductory course. It’s unfortunately why comprehension gaps can go undetected, especially among introverted students. Taylor advises creating a participation strategy in a smart, low-stress manner that appeals to both extroverts and introverts. “If I cold call a student and see them panic, I might ask them, ‘Do you want to phone a friend?’ It’s not about shaming students but more a mechanism to wake them up,” Taylor says. She also warns students in advance if she’s about to host a class-wide discussion. For instance, when running a think-pair-share exercise in class, Taylor will walk the room during the ‘pair’ phase and ask members from select groups if they would later be willing to share their thoughts with the class. Not only does this remove the surprise element that can come with speaking out in class, it gives learners some extra time to refine their thoughts.
The latest research shows that discussing questions with a partner in class is proven to boost accuracy among disciplines and grade levels.1 By prioritizing collaborative learning, Taylor has helped lay the foundation for upper-year Economics courses and, more importantly, career success. Students have responded overwhelmingly to her class structure, especially as they’re given space to make mistakes and admit when they don’t have an answer at the ready.
Help students internalize information in a meaningful way
Students may not be able to detect their own learning gaps until preparing for a test. It’s why Taylor has started to step aside and let students do the teaching from time to time. “Peer-to-peer teaching forces students to internalize information in a way that will make sense to their classmates. If you can teach it, then you know it. It really forces them to know their stuff,” she says. Using peer-to-peer learning—such as by asking students to shout out the answer to a question before revealing the correct answer—has also helped learners stay alert and gives them a unique opportunity to quiz themselves without a grade attached. This strategy, in turn, has helped students participate without the added pressure of being correct.
Taylor is also aware that students may be more receptive to their peers. So on day one, she invites former students back to lecture her current cohort. “On syllabus day, I now give a 10-minute talk and then bring in previous students who share how to succeed in my course, what assignments look like and how to prepare. This information’s more believable coming from students compared to me,” she shares. Another technique Taylor uses is hosting group office hours. Instead of meeting with students one-to-one, she’s turned these sessions into collaboration opportunities for students to realize who’s in the same boat when it comes to areas of confusion.
The impact of collaborative learning can’t be understated. Taylor’s course evaluations from 2021 make it clear that students have responded extremely well to peer interaction during large classes. One student wrote, “I’ve seen concepts click for people during the time that she stopped and clarified a bit instead of keeping on time and steamrolling ahead.” Another student wrote: “The balance of student participation and Dr. Taylor’s lectures were perfect!” A final student stated: “…I have learned to think critically, cumulatively, and have fun at the same time.” So as you begin preparing your next course or continue to deliver your current curriculum, ask yourself, ‘how will I help my students learn from, not with, their peers?’
Watch the video below to learn how Top Hat has created more accessible, stress-free assessments for both Taylor and her students.
- Tullis, J.G., Goldstone, R.L. Why does peer instruction benefit student learning?. Cogn. Research 5, 15 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-020-00218-5
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