Saturday, April 9, 2016

How Can Profs Keep Students' Attention? Put Them in Charge

It's important for faculty to work their hardest to ensure their courses, especially when they are long or comprised of tedious or difficult subject matter, hold their students' attention and keep them engaged. Because it can be so easy for students to drift mentally in class (research purports that college students retain only 10% of material covered in lecture-based courses), it is critical that faculty employ new and creative ways to hold engagement high and get students involved and thinking critically.

Raymond Benton, Jr., a professor at Loyola University Chicago, has managed to put a new spin on an active-learning classic. In what is known as a "jigsaw classroom", students are divided into subgroups within the class, with each subgroup learning a specific topic that they then teach to the rest of the class. Each subgroup member becomes an expert in their allotted area, and the subgroups must educate each other in order to complete an overarching assignment that all groups must complete as a class.

In Benton's version, the "jigsaw classroom" puts students in control of more than learning and communicating information in a given course topic. In an example he provides, a small class of students are given three assigned readings, all of which teach student must read before class, and are randomly assigned to a reading group and a discussion group. In each reading group, the students discuss one of the three articles thoroughly, comparing their own conclusions and understandings of the article. They become experts in that one article, knowing that the other group members will ask questions about that article they will be responsible for answering. Next, they discuss what they did not fully understand about the other two articles and form a list of questions for the other groups. The students then move to discussion groups, in which article "experts" are represented equally, and ask and answer questions and engage in conversations about the articles. Students then reconvene in their original reading groups to compare the answers they received from other groups and share how they answered questions about their group's article. Finally, the professor regroups the entire class to have a class discussion debriefing what they learned about all the articles.

This method is rich with opportunities for active critical thinking and deep levels of processing that will allow students not only to pay attention, but also to engage with the course material in ways they would not remotely approach in a traditional lecture.

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