Center for Faculty Excellence

Tips for Teaching

Activities for Engaging Cadets in Class

While many participants shared some of their ways of involving cadets in learning in class, the groups also addressed some general principles:

  • The key is to be student-centered (or customer oriented). That is, the instructor should not assume that his or her way of conducting the class is how it should be done, but should find out how cadets respond. For example, LTC Whiteman shared the fact that while he formerly presented problems during the entire class session, he has switched to having cadets work problems more regularly. He has found that when he returns to presenting problems himself, the cadets have indicated that they prefer to be more involved and actively working problems.
  • There is no "right way" or "perfect technique" for involving cadets – it depends on the discipline, the course (core or major), the individual lesson, and the level of the cadets (plebes or firsties), among other variables. The instructor needs to develop a repertoire or "toolkit" of techniques to address different situations.
  • The key is to avoid "one-way teaching" that involves instructor presentation as the only "technique" for the classroom.
  • While homework assignments were the subject of our previous brown bag, one of the points we noted that the "connection" of homework to class, is a strong motivation. Cadets can be "engaged" both in the barracks and in class with the simple technique shared by LTC Gene Ressler. Note in the following description how this technique has been developed in relation to course material and level of the learners and is designed to engage cadets in learning.
Activity

Teaching computer science majors (firsties) in a demanding course, he regularly assigns two questions (problems) for each homework assignment. One will be related to previously learned material and will be less demanding. The second will be on new material and will be more challenging. At the beginning of class, two names are drawn from a hat, and those cadets go to the board to work the problems and brief them. Cadets submit their homework, and they can annotate or complete their work from the board, but they must do so in a different color so that when the homework is collected, LTC Ressler can see how far they got on their own. Cadets are motivated to be engaged in the class briefings because 20% of their course grade is a portfolio of these homework problems in which they demonstrate understanding.

Again, there is nothing absolute about this technique; it might not work for some courses. The key is to design activities appropriate for the course and/or lesson that engage students in learning.

We mentioned the "punctuated lecture" as a low-risk form that has been shown to be popular. If the instructor usually presents course material for the entire session, he or she should divide a lesson into segments and plan 4 or 5 interesting questions to ask during the class. Then the instructor stops after about 10 minutes of presentation and asks the first question, giving students a minute or two to discuss the response in small groups. The instructor gets feedback from the students before proceeding to the next segment, etc.

Some inexperienced instructors fear having cadets ask questions like this because they can stray from the lesson and be unable to get back on track. It is possible to use the "punctuated lecture" with writing as well. That is, rather than ask questions, the instructor stops at the end of a segment and has cadets write a question they would ask on what has just been presented. The instructor leaves 10 minutes at the end of the lesson for cadets (in groups of 3) to compare questions and decide what one question they would like answered in the next class meeting (or via e-mail). The instructor collects the questions from the groups and responds. Note: research indicates that framing the question provides as much cognitive engagement as answering a question.

I distributed a handout of a series of "low risk" activities like this that I encouraged instructors to adapt as needed to their courses (copy below).

Issues

Almost all participants commented that the pressure of time or "coverage" often impels instructors to try to do all the presentation in class themselves. This is a curriculum issue that needs to be addressed separately; however, everyone agreed that "coverage" does not compute to student learning. In order to decide what must be stressed in class, instructors must be familiar with what's difficult in the course, what cadets will need help with. To know this, they should regularly be getting feedback from cadets via classroom assessment techniques. LTC Whiteman pointed out that he gets feedback from cadets on every lesson and has been surprised at the concepts cadets have difficulty with that he would have assumed they'd have no trouble learning. We discussed how our own knowledge of the course material often keeps us from understanding the learner's perspective and how we must regularly get information from them on their learning.

Some Other Tips for Cadet Engagement

Don't be "too quick" to answer student questions. Refer the question to the class to give other students a chance to answer.

When dealing with abstract concepts, be sure to give concrete applications or elicit those applications from cadets. That is, provide "real world" examples as much as possible, but another way to test learning is to ask the students to give real world applications of concepts.

Don't start at the most basic level. The example offered was if one gives a homework set of four problems of increasing difficulty. If the first problem is at a very basic level that everyone should have been able to do easily, don't begin with that one. The same is true in humanities classes – don't begin at the knowledge (facts) level of the reading, but ask higher order questions to engage the learners.

Use "war stories." This was explained by LTC Ressler as those interesting facts related to the material in the lesson that is not essential but offers interesting additional information for the learner. One example that comes to mind is when I remind students that titles of published books are underlined or italicized. I always point out that underlining comes from the printer's symbol for italics from the "old days" of typewriters when the writer could not italicize easily as we can now with computers.