Active Learning Fellows: Minna Ng on Her Student Teams

DMinna Ng, Ph.D.uring the summer and fall of 2015, the CIT led the Active Learning Faculty Fellowship. Nine faculty from a variety of disciplines shared experiences and learned about using active learning techniques in their classrooms.

In this guest blog post, Minna Ng, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, describes her experiences working with student teams in her course, Biological Basis of Behavior (Neurosci 101/ PSY 106) after participating in the Fellowship.

If you are interested in getting ideas to bring more active learning into your own class, contact the CIT to talk with a consultant.

This is the first time I had my students work in the same teams throughout a semester, and I like it!

My initial plan was to group the students so as to maximize variability of their hometown. (35 freshmen) I asked everyone to line up according to home location. On one end was a student from Palo Alto; on the other end was a student from Boston. I was supposed to have them count off beginning at one end, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 7…, and then team up the 1’s, 2’s, etc. The class went from complete silence and serious stares to chatting, relaxing and laughing during the line up. I so enjoyed watching this that I managed to muck up my plan! I ended up grouping the students by their neighbors, so I had a team from California, a team from the New York/New Jersey area, and so on. And looking back, I’m glad this happened. Students were able to identify with their teammates more easily, and commiserate about the culture shock that is particularly striking among first-semester freshmen. Being able to share stories about time-change and weather differences bonds people!

I did also receive more concrete feedback about the success of these teams through the students’ peer-evaluations. Students repeatedly rated their peers as being engaged, initiating and encouraging discussions, coming to class prepared, and having a positive attitude toward learning.

The evaluation was administered 3 times throughout the semester. The first time introduced students to the evaluation items (i.e., being engaged). The second time gave students feedback on any modifications they may have made (i.e., highly engaged). This provided validation for the third, and final, time to be counted toward their course grade, worth 4%. Students evaluated themselves too, and this self-evaluation was worth 1% of the course grade. In addition to Likert scale statements, the evaluation included a few open-ended questions, including this one: What is the single most important way this person could have altered his/her behavior to more effectively help your team?

I was nervous about this; I did not want them to feel badly about their team or themselves, but do think this is valuable feedback. And then a student just told me what a strong impression it was to see all his teammates respond to the question above with the same message – that he could be more assertive. He said, “It’s really powerful seeing them all say the same thing. I know I should work on that, and that they noticed it is important because we care about each other so much.” Ah, the power of positive peer pressure!

Whether or not this helped, I also included the following message when I sent out the results of their peer evaluations to explain my perspective:

When reviewing the constructive feedback, please remember that no one is perfect and that is not the goal. But to constantly grow and improve, which IS a goal, feedback is necessary. Peer feedback, particularly by peers that share your goals and want you to succeed, is especially worthwhile. Peer feedback is the backbone of scientific progress. Ideas and intelligence are obviously critical, but it is one’s peers that determine whether or not ideas are worth funding and publishing. Related and equally important, productivity relies on collaborations both within and across labs. Finally, more immediately applicable, interpersonal skills improve learning and are typically significant components of reference letters.

Thank you for a wonderful CIT Active Learning Fellowship 2015, which helped me implement these active learning strategies!

If you are interested in getting ideas to bring more active learning into your own class, contact CIT to talk with a consultant. We’d love to hear from you!

Minna Ng and Gennifer Weisenfeld discuss an activity during the 2015 CIT faculty fellowship
Minna Ng and Gennifer Weisenfeld discuss an activity during the 2015 CIT faculty fellowship