Selecting and Designing Activities
Travelers need to learn how to read maps and practice using them so that they can reach their destinations. Similarly, students need opportunities to develop and practice the knowledge and skills identified in the learning outcomes. The activities are the instructional strategies and teaching methods instructors use to help students achieve the learning outcomes. Since the activities are intended to help students achieve the desired results, it is important that the activities align with the learning outcomes. When selecting activities, consider what kinds of tasks, projects, or processes will prepare students to complete the assignments and achieve the learning outcomes.
Activities that make use of active learning techniques set the stage for successful learning experiences. Coined by Bonwell and Eison (1991), active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (p. 19). Passive activities like listening to lecture or reading, allow students to be more passive during the learning process. A large body of research suggests that students learn more effectively when activities are active rather than passive.
Descriptions of a variety of active learning techniques are available online. Harvard University has a database of hundreds of activity examples from across all disciplines. Examples include case studies, concept maps, and peer instruction. MIT has a similar database with example active learning activities.
Active learning and group work
Active learning tends to involve group work as students solve problems with their peers or engage in debates with their peers. Working in groups helps students develop interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills like the ability to collaborate with peers is among competencies students will need as they further their careers. Chickering and Gamson (1987) note that “collaboration develops reciprocity and cooperation among students” (p. 3). When students collaborate to solve problems, they enhance their critical thinking skills. When students collaborate or discuss what they learn, they get to know their peers and they learn how to form a community. A sense of being part of a community is an important aspect of social presence.
Why some students dislike group work
Though group work is a well-recognized good practice in undergraduate education, students may be anxious about doing group projects. They might worry about how other group member’s poor participation might affect their grade and about carrying peers’ weight. They worry about how they will find free time to meet with their peers. In online courses where students may never meet in person and may not know each other, instructors may want to be particularly mindful about the set-up of group work. Careful consideration when organizing groups can make group work more successful in the course. One of the reasons students may resist group work is because they do not understand its purpose. Here are some questions to use to determine whether group work is appropriate.
- Is the scope and aim of the project such that it would be difficult for students to complete independently?
- Is the group work part of an activity that supports the learning outcomes?
- Is it clear to students why they are working in groups and developing collaboration skills is useful to them?
Recommended practices for group work
Explain to students why they are working in groups.
Sharing the rationale for group work with students may help get their buy in.). Limit students’ anxiety about how group work is graded by explaining grading strategy.
Recommend that groups do introductions
Introductions enable students to begin build relationships and to find time to meet.
Make groups small
Smaller groups (less than 5 students per group) allow all students to have the opportunity to contribute during group meetings and make it easier for students to find time to meet.
Put students in odd numbered groups
Odd numbered groups make it easier for students to vote and make decisions.
Give each group member a specific role
To help groups clarify their responsibilities, consider using group roles. Group roles give each student a specific responsibility. Instructors can assign the roles, or students can select them.
Take advantage of the learning management system
Designate space in the learning management system for groups to collaborate so it is easier for them to communicate and share documents. Provide clear instructions on how to access the space and indicate if the space is private or if the instructor will visit to check on progress.
Require groups to assess each member's contributions and reflect on their own
The process of doing this assessment helps hold each group member accountable for doing their work and gets students accustomed to giving and receiving feedback in professional contexts. By reflecting on their own contributions to the group, students can analyze their participation and set goals about how to enhance the quality of their participation.
Provide feedback at different points throughout the semester
Regular feedback helps the instructor and students gauge the group's progress and helps groups stay on task.
- Bigatel, P. (2016). Student Engagement Strategies for Online Learning Environment. Retrieved from Faculty Focus.
- Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1).Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
- Brame, C., (2016). Active Learning. Retrieved from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
- Budhai, S. 2015 Designing Effective Team Projects in Online Courses. Retrieved from Faculty Focus.
- Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE bulletin, 3, 7.
- Gates, C. (2016). Overcoming Barriers to Group Work Retrieved from University of Pittsburgh University Center for Teaching & Learning.
- Lieberman, M. (2018). Online Students Don't Have To Work Solo. Retrieved from Inside Higher Education.
- Peery, T. & Veneruso, S. (2012). Balancing Act: Managing Instructor Presence and Workload When Creating an Interactive Community of Learners. Retrieved from Faculty Focus.
- Why should assessments, learning objectives instructional strategies be aligned? Retrieved from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation.