Nursing workshop promotes `active learning'

In an effort to provide support for, recognize the importance of and enhance the scholarship of teaching in the Woodruff School of Nursing, Marianne Scharbo-DeHaan, associate professor in the School of Nursing, with faculty support has initiated and organized several consultation workshops with a nationally recognized teaching consultant.

The workshops were funded by the University's Teaching Fund. They were conducted by the founding director of the Center for Teaching Enhancement at the University of South Florida, James Eison, to assist the nursing school faculty in "the development of innovative instructional strategies utilizing active learning to enhance students' creative and critical thinking skills," said Scharbo-DeHaan.

"Reform efforts in both health care and higher education have necessitated major revisions in virtually every aspect of teaching and learning that take place in the nursing school," said Scharbo-DeHaan. As the curriculum adapts to these revisions, however, teachers find themselves mandated with changes in instructional strategies while struggling to cover material and maximize student outcomes.

"Recent national reports have challenged college and university faculty to develop instructional approaches that transform students from passive listeners to active learners," Scharbo-DeHaan said.

Eison came to campus Sept. 30 to assist nursing school faculty in meeting this challenge. Eison, co-author of Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, "has made teaching and learning in higher education the focus of his career," according to Scharbo-DeHaan. With approximately 50 nursing school faculty in attendance at the seminar, Eison engaged participants in discussion and reflection on teaching strategies in active learning while explaining how it can take place in the classroom.

Eison's overall program, which continues in November with several workshops on active learning and its advantages, will focus on four central questions to help participants understand and address this teaching method: 1) What is active learning? 2) Why is it important? 3) What are the common obstacles and barriers to using active learning strategies in the university classroom? and 4) How can these barriers be overcome?

To open the session, Eison outlined several basic premises pertaining to teaching. "We all share a commitment to teaching excellence. Active learning strategies are appropriate to all disciplines," he said. "The appropriateness of particular active learning strategies to individual courses and contexts will vary. The challenge is to choose the most suitable active learning strategy."

To explore current thought on the use of active learning, Eison had participants come to a consensus on what the term meant to them in the average classroom setting. Faculty agreed on several tenets: student-to-instructor interaction; a classroom setup that encourages this interaction; using case studies; respect for silence and diversity; having a focus for the class and clear goals; asking good questions and offering choices, among several others.

Eison then engaged the group in a technique that allows both introverted and extroverted students to engage in critical learning and thinking. "The think/pair/share exercise often begins with information provided initially through past experience or assignments," Eison explained. "The instructor poses a question to the class, and students are instructed to reflect on the question and note their response in writing." By doing this, Eison said, the student focuses their attention on the subject at hand. The exercise also stimulates their thinking, increases their urgency to remain alert and engages more than one sense. Moreover, it puts the responsibility on students to do something about their learning in the classroom. After individual reflection, students share their responses with a partner, providing the benefit of multiple perspectives on the same question.

The think/pair/share process, which Eison said could be used in any size group, works in conjunction with the characteristics normally associated with active learning. "Students involve themselves in more than passive listening," Eison said. "They are reading, discussing and writing. There is less emphasis placed on information transmission and greater emphasis placed on skill development.

"Students are also involved in higher order thinking," Eison continued. "Paying attention while listening to a speaker is not the same thing as being actively involved in the learning experience."

To illustrate this point, Eison gave a 17-minute mini-lecture to the group, signifying the norm of a lecture-based classroom. After the mini-lecture, Eison asked for comments and criticism; most of the group reported that their concentration had failed at several points and that they were more preoccupied with getting the notes than paying attention.

To combat these problems in a classroom lecture, Eison introduced "the Pause Procedure." In this procedure, students work in pairs of two. During the class session, students have three pauses of two to three minutes each. During the pauses, students compare notes on the lecture material just covered, giving them a chance to ask questions of each other and fill in the blanks. This time also allows the instructor a chance to organize thoughts on the next lecture segment.

After Eison had explained these techniques, the group discussed why active learning was not more common in classrooms. According to Eison, the ultimate tenet of active learning--and why it should be used in classrooms despite traditional thought and the obstacles involved--is the motivation of the students themselves. "Motivation is a personality trait. It is brought to the classroom in different degrees," Eison said. "Either students bring it or they don't; your job is to teach.

"As for the concern that active learning techniques require more preparation time, yes, it will in the beginning," Eison continued. "Any new skill does. The first time you do anything takes more time. It gets easier and better with practice."

The remaining workshops in the series will focus on leading effective classroom discussions, enhancing students' creative and critical thinking skills and creating a teaching portfolio. The workshops will take place throughout the fall semester. For more information, contact Scharbo-DeHaan at 727-6929.

--Danielle Service

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