Interactive Learning–sharing our experiences

Geethanjali Selvaretnam

(University of Glasgow)

Ian Smith

(University of St Andrews)


  1. Background
  2. Using Technology
  3. Games
  4. Group discussions in classrooms
  5. Two stage exams
  6. Random groups in breakout rooms
  7. Mixed groups in classrooms
  8. Multicultural groups
  9. Welcoming students who join mid-way
  10. Vertical Integration Programme (VIP)
  11. Interaction across Universities
  12. References

Background

The rise of interactive learning is reshaping the educational experience for undergraduate students.  Whether that interaction is with digital devices or through discussion and sharing knowledge with peers and teachers, the traditional approach of students passively consuming the wisdom of the sage on the stage is increasingly complemented by a wide range of active learning innovations. 

Most students naturally prefer to interact with friends, even in class. However, there are considerable learning benefits from interactions with strangers, especially those from different backgrounds and diverse disciplinary perspectives. To facilitate this requires instructors to be proactive in designing and implementing interactive activities and assessments. However, it is important to evaluate whether these interventions enhance the students’ learning experience and skill development beyond interaction for its own sake.

During many years teaching in two Scottish universities, we have experimented with various interactive innovations, ranging from simple discussions with the student sitting in the adjacent seat in class to working on research projects with those from different disciplines and levels of study.  Our offering to the advent calendar is to share some methods we have used in our classes which enable interactive learning. We provide links to more detailed descriptions and you are welcome to email us for further information.

Using Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the incorporation of technical innovations to engage students. There are many digital products available. Here we describe those we have applied. A popular initiative for Zoom classes is to use the ‘poll’ feature, where questions are set up beforehand. It is evident that students enjoy this! Another fruitful interactive facility is to ask students to discuss questions in breakout rooms. Its success depends on the provision of discussion topics which are clearly explained, accessible and stimulating.

Technology can also work well in physical classrooms.  In classes where only a few students respond to questions, it is difficult to be sure of the understanding of the majority of students. Mentimeter has many useful features for interactive learning. Students can be asked to log online and engage with posted questions. These can be MCQs, Agree/ disagree or short answers. The teacher can ascertain the level of engagement and gauge the understanding of students from their responses as the lesson progresses. Short answers can be presented as Word Clouds to summarise student responses in a visually powerful way.

Interactive learning can be prompted by students as they raise questions, make suggestions or seek to clarify doubts as the lesson proceeds. This is less easy for shy students in large classes though it can be facilitated using Slido which is a digital commenting and polling platform. The challenge for the teacher is that repeatedly inspecting Slido comments necessarily interrupts teaching. Less frequent reference to Slido means that the questions may be picked up too late to be addressed adequately on the spot if they relate to a point from a much earlier stage in the class.  

Padlet is a large colourful online canvas which can be used for workshops and online discussions. This is suitable when you wish students to see each other’s posts live. They can join the same group of discussions or ‘like’ other posts. This is also an effective method for online discussions. Students or teacher can pose a question to start a discussion and solicit responses and ‘likes’. New threads can be initiated and, since this is a large canvas, multiple threads are visible and differentiated by different colours.

Games

Games are a stimulating and fun way to engage students and invariably involve group interaction. Many of the concepts in Economics courses can be understood well through games. Induction programmes, team building exercises, away days and school outreach programmes can also benefit from gamifying learning. Some inspiring examples can be found in The Economics Network. A bidding game and public good game are described in Selvaretnam and Clancey (2021).

The experience of gamification at a weekend away for Honours students is that the group games add a lively competitive element. The incentive to win generates greater determination to make sense of the game and perform well. Dividing students into teams helps to build skills in communication and negotiation as well as building community. Mixing up the teams across games reinforces these outcomes. The importance of debriefing to ensure that students have fully understood the key learning points is a lesson the instructors themselves have learned.

Group discussions in classrooms

Interactive participation is typically challenging for students in large classes. A solution is to ask students to discuss a point or problem with their neighbour. This is an easy and effective method to encourage students to listen and reflect on the content and to permit an element of peer learning.

A related technique is that of think-pair-share where students think about the question on their own, before discussing it with a neighbouring student and then share with the class. A shortcoming is that these interactions may be limited to existing friends who sit next to them. Moreover, time constraints mean that these interactions are usually quite short.

Two stage exams

In a two-stage exam, students are set a question which they first attempt on their own followed by working on the same question as a group. Although this technique can be used for formative assessments, I (Selvaretnam) implemented a two-stage exam as a summative assessment worth 15% of the total grade in an undergraduate honours level course, Economics of Poverty and Discrimination. When grades are at stake, students engage fully and derive more learning benefits from the method. The question was designed too so that it required some critical thinking and preparation.

Ideally, small groups of three or four students are desirable to increase the level of interaction. I ensured that we were allocated a spacious exam hall with suitable chairs and writing facilities so that students can easily form groups after completing their individual work. Students could choose their own groups when they came into the exam hall and sat in the chairs arranged in threes. I collected their answers once they completed each of the questions so that the writing space was not cluttered. After handing in their answers which they completed individually, they only needed to move their chairs a little to work on the group submission. The students decided how they did this. Most of the groups had a volunteer to be the scribe. Although there was chatter, the venue was large enough for the groups not to be disturbed by the others.

The total time allocated to this two-stage exam was 2 hours. This form of interaction during the group discussion allows for a more in-depth discussion over a long period of time (around 45 minutes). Moreover, having done the question themselves prior to the discussion, we found that the students were able to contribute more to the group conversation as well as generate valuable inner feedback by comparing what they had done with what the group was producing. If you want to know about the details of this study, please see Nicol & Selvaretnam (2021) or view a presentation. The primary pedagogical benefit we were interested in was the quality of the learning and inner feedback that the two-stage nature of this activity generated. The fact that most students formed groups with their friends did not compromise the study outcomes.

Random groups in breakout rooms

As explained in the introduction, the need for teacher intervention is greater to facilitate interactions outside the usual friendship groups. In the postgraduate course of Economic Growth and Development at the University of Glasgow we have students from many different countries. It is important for these students to develop multicultural skills and learn about development strategies in different countries. Covid restrictions forced us into the online world in the academic year 2020/21, reducing the opportunities for students to become acquainted and interact with each other. I (Selvaretnam) decided to upload pre-recorded short videos of the lectures, along with some carefully designed questions to ponder. This allowed the students time to think about the questions before attending the weekly online live session. Some of the questions were about how the theories apply to countries of their interest.

During the online live sessions, I randomly allocated students into break out rooms for 15 minutes to discuss a question at a time.  This enabled students to meet peers and share knowledge of each other’s countries. Students mentioned that they found this very valuable, especially during lockdown restrictions. More details of this study can be found in chapter 21 of Creativity for Learning in Higher Education Community by Kushwah and Selvaretnam (2021).

Mixed groups in classrooms

Now that the Covid restrictions have been lifted, students in the same Economics of Growth and Development course wanted me to have the sessions in-person. I was keen to ensure the classroom discussions occurred in mixed groups and not just with friends who were mostly from the same countries. The postgraduate students realised the value of what I wanted to achieve and would turn around to form groups with students sitting in the row behind or front as well as with those sitting next to them. I also tried to book rooms where students could easily form groups and move around. Although finding appropriate rooms can be challenging, we have been successful in inducing students to greater mingling inside and outside the classrooms, discussing how the economic theories can be applied to different economies. University of Glasgow has invested in teaching rooms which are conducive for interactive learning.

Multicultural groups

The value of multicultural skills and the obstacles to cross-cultural interaction are discussed in various studies (see Cheng and Selvaretnam (2022) as a paper and a presentation). I (Selvaretnam) worked with a colleague to introduce an intervention in an undergraduate honours course, Economics of Poverty and Discrimination. The students had to work on a group project to produce a proposal which contributes to poverty alleviation in any area of their choice. They were asked to form groups of four, but with the constraint that at least two different nationalities must be represented. It was a semester long project which gave ample time for students to interact with each other so that they would invariably talk about matters which may not directly relate to the group project. After they submitted the project, the students completed a survey, which indicated that such an opportunity to work with students from different background had enhanced their cultural awareness. The response was very positive so much so that I am implementing this idea in different ways depending on the circumstances.   

Welcoming students who join mid-way

Students from a feeder institute, Glasgow International College (GIC), join the Economics degree programme at the University of Glasgow in the second year. The new group make up nearly a third of a 400+ class. Given the large size of the class and the in-coming group, the two cohorts have minimal interaction in the three remaining years. This could partly be due to inertia given that stable friendship groups have already formed. Since most of the non-European students belong to the GIC group, there are potentially many benefits to all students from interaction in the form of the development of multicultural and team working skills. 

The second-year microeconomics course is the first course in which this confluence occurs in the Economics’ degree programme. I (Selvaretnam) worked with my co-lecturer (Dr Michele Battisti) to design two group assessments worth 10% each of the total grade. One group assessment preceded the in-course exam while the other preceded the degree exam. The group assessments were mostly MCQs with some short questions and would be a revision opportunity for the subsequent individual exam. 

The groups of roughly six members were randomly created with one or two students from GIC. They remained in the same group for both assessments. Being at a relatively earlier stage of the degree, students were more open to new ways of learning without excessive concern about the potential negative impacts of group work on their grades. Students found this experience beneficial. You can find details of this study in Selvaretnam (2022) as a conference proceeding and a presentation.

Vertical Integration Programme (VIP)

The VIP model is designed to promote frequent and lengthy interactions between students from different levels of study (the vertical dimension) and diverse academic disciplines.  For example, in my (Smith) VIP at the University of St Andrews this year, I have students from Economics, Psychology, Philosophy, Sustainable Development, Management and Mathematics who vary in level of study from second year through to fourth year.

VIP is currently delivered at 45 universities across five continents. In essence, it is an undergraduate research initiative which places collaboration in exploration and discovery at the centre of project-based learning. Initially introduced by Professor Ed Coyle at Georgia Tech in Engineering, the idea is that students work together in teams or sub-teams on an open ended and challenging research project for credit and grades. The research group meets weekly with the supervisor(s) to work on the project, to reflect on progress, to discuss challenges, to find solutions and to prepare next steps. The students are expected to look for opportunities to be proactive, to suggest ideas and initiatives and contribute to the direction that the project takes. The student (sub)teams also coordinate research meetings and discussions outside of class without the supervisor present.

The diversity of the student mix means that team members bring different skills and perspectives to the research team as they learn to break down barriers and communicate across disciplinary and cohort boundaries. Often in Higher Education, group work is confined to preparing an assessment over a short period. By contrast, in VIP, the interactions are weekly, mostly not assessed, and research focused. The tasks conducted together may cover a wide range of typical research activities such as discussing the research design, solving a problem or reading a research paper, jointly completing an ethics approval form, applying for funding, collecting data, seeking advice, sharing knowledge, preparing a survey, interviewing respondents, visiting an archive, setting up an experiment, engaging with external partners, preparing a conference presentation or a poster and giving help to each other. As the projects are long term and continuous across semesters, this enables those students with credit space in their curriculum to stay on the project for two, three or four semesters and contribute through mentoring and leadership of those new team members with less or no experience on the project.  

The instructor takes the role of principal investigator, coaching the students, coordinating, and providing feedback. Both student and teacher find themselves in a largely unfamiliar learning environment. Inevitably, given the high levels of human interaction in a heterogeneous team, things can go wrong. While diversity is a strength of VIP, it can also generate its own challenges. These can arise in relation to difficulties in coordinating very different schedules for team meetings outside of class. There is also the incentive for some students to free ride on the efforts of the most dedicated contributors. Challenges for collaboration may also arise when students have different capabilities to deliver on project goals or they experience academic and interpersonal conflicts and personality frictions. However, these common dysfunctions are also a learning opportunity in which students and staff are encouraged to look for solutions to improve the quality and effectiveness of their team interactions. Even the less positive experiences help prepare students for their future professional careers, given that many graduates will find themselves working in teams with people of different ages, backgrounds and expertise where soft skills of collaboration, communication and project management are highly valuable. 

Interaction across Universities

What more can we do? We have joint degrees and study abroad arrangements where students take courses during a semester or a year in another university. However, there is a novel idea that can be explored where students from different universities taking a similar programme to work together on a project. It is common for academics to collaborate across universities to produce research output. The two of us are exploring ways to collaborate on our students interacting with each other. We welcome collaborators who would like to explore such interactive experiences for our students.


References

Cheng, W., and Selvaretnam, G. (2022). Effects of mixed groups on multicultural interaction and student experience. Learning and Teaching in Social Sciences 15(2), https://doi.org/10.3167/latiss.2022.150202; UoG L&T Conference 2020

Kushwah, L. and Selvaretnam, G. (2021). Enhancing interactive learning in an online setting: Breakout rooms and questions to ponder.  Chapter 21 in Being creative in the face of adversity. The #creative Annual 2021. Creativity for Learning in Higher Education Community v4 edited by Tasler, N., O’Brien. R, E. and Spiers, A. https://doi.org/10.25416/NTR.17709860.

Nicol, D. and Selvaretnam, G. (2021). Making internal feedback explicit: harnessing the comparisons students make during two-stage exams. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 47. 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.1934653UoG L&T Conference 2020

Selvaretnam, G. (2022). Welcome, interact and learn: Analysis of a group assessment in a large class. CABS conference proceedings page 92-93 LTSE-2022-Conference-Proceedings-FINAL.pdf (kxcdn.com)UoG L&T Conference 2022

Selvaretnam, G. and Clancey, K. (2021). Discover Economics – School Outreach Programme. University of Glasgow SOTL Pages,  https://uofgsotl.blog/2021/10/23/discovering-economics-schools-outreach-event/.

https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/themes/games

https://www.mentimeter.com/

https://padlet.com/

https://www.slido.com/

https://zoom.us

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