The First Day of Class: Getting students on board with active learning #physicsed

by Stephanie Chasteen on January 9, 2013

From SERC:

Instructors trying out active learning strategies (such as clickers) in the classroom for the first time (or the umpteenth time!) are often concerned about how to make sure that their students are on-board with these teaching techniques, so that they engage.  After all, says Doug Duncan (University of Colorado), it’s more work, so you better make it worth their while.  While we haven’t had a lot of student resistance at CU Boulder, we’ve been uncertain if that’s due to our student population, the fact that we use clickers in so many classes, or because we’ve sold it so well.  But research shows that student resistance (or instructors’ perception of the possibility thereof) is one of the major impediments to using active engagement strategies in the classroom.

So, I’ve recently started gathering some activities and approaches from instructors on how they frame their classroom strategies to their students, and I’ve been surprised.  Read on.

I’ve often advocated that instructors explain to their students why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Tell them about the data.  Motivate them to engage because they will do well on the exams if they do so.  We’ve created a short video through the Science Education Initiative (below) demonstrating how Doug Duncan does this in his classroom.

Certainly, an explanation has limited power, but it certainly didn’t seem like it would be a bad thing to try.  Better than nothing, right?  But as I’ve gathered information from instructors, however, I have found several who said that such an approach either didn’t work well, or actually had detrimental effects:

One instructor had student backlash, indicating that she was inflexible and insensitive to their needs, and spent too much time justifying what she was doing.

Two instructors indicated that “explanations” like this backfired, because they have then suggested that what they are doing is something controversial and undesireable that students would be expected to resist by default.

I got an extremely thoughtful response from Ian Beatty:

I make a distinction between “explaining” clicker use (and other active-learning strategies I use, such as group whiteboarding and group exams) and “selling” it to the students. If students feel like I’m trying to sell the idea to them, they get suspicious, because I’ve stupidly communicated the idea that (a) clickers are something controversial that needs to be sold, and (b) they have some kind of valid opinion on the matter. I prefer to take the position that “this is just the way I teach, because overwhelming evidence and experience show that it’s what works well, but I also want you to understand what I’m doing and why so that you can play your role with as much awareness as possible. The more we’re on the same page, the better this whole thing works.” See the difference? It’s all about framing.

I hadn’t thought about it this way.  That the act of justifying the approach does frame it as something that requires justification.  On the other hand, this may be instructor- and context-specific, since several instructors also said that they find it useful to give such speeches, but that such explanations are most effective when combined with something that students do.  After all, we learn more by doing than by listening, right?

So, I’ve gathered quite a wealth of activities and strategies that I think will be useful to our community.  For example:

  • Clicker questions on what is important to learn, or how we learn, to spark discussions of learning
  • Activities to discuss the content of the course or how people learn
  • Activities to create good cooperative learning from the get-go, so that students experience productive group learning early
  • Activities to challenge students’ misconceptions about learning

Plus various slides that people use for more “didactic” presentations of research about teaching and learning, literature and resources, handouts, and a whole slew of “testimonials” where instructors discuss what they have found works for them.

If you have anything to share along these lines, please email me at

Otherwise, keep your eyes open for an announcement of these materials later this week!  And if you can’t wait that long, take a look at this excellent resource from the Science Education Resource Center, The First Day of Class.




Doug Duncan January 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm

In case it’s not clear from the video, my presentation is more an explanation than a “selling.” I show them the Hake plot with Colorado data, which shows how much learning went up from peer instruction/clicker use where students engage in discussions during class. I tell them that I do NOT grade on a curve, so group discussions which benefit everyone raise everyone’s grade; they are not competing with each other. And I’m clear that active participation is more work than passive listening, but leads to better grades. I guess it is “selling,” but it is fact-based selling, with a tone exactly like “this is how we know the age of the earth….” [“This is how we know peer instruction leads to better grades….”]

Stephanie Chasteen January 23, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Thanks for the clarifications, Doug!

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