Collaboration Discussion Techniques
Michael Kahn, Rotman School of Management
For many lecture-based classes, a few weekly tasks are essential for students to keep up with the material and understand key concepts: participate in class, keep up with the readings, and ask questions about the material. It’s these very tasks that are often perennial challenges for instructors. For Michael Khan, Lecturer in Accounting at the Rotman School of Management, incorporating collaborative discussion techniques in his lectures proved to be a strategy that energized his class and helped him connect with his students’ needs.
Having taught a range of courses in the Rotman programs, the focus of Khan’s work in the past year has been teaching Financial and Managerial Accounting courses at the MBA and undergraduate levels, and an IT Audit course (Information Systems and Technology, and IT Assurance) at the UTM campus. “The risk with accounting especially,” Khan says, “is that the content is cumulative and there is a lot of content. It can be an unpleasant surprise for students when the test time comes because there is so much to know – you can’t just wing it.” To encourage students to complete the readings and feel comfortable asking questions in class, Khan began introducing collaborative discussion techniques in his classes: think-pair-share, iClickers, and a weekly reflection which combines a strategies of a 3-2-1 organizer and the “Just In Time” approach advocated by Harvard University Professor Eric Mazur. The three strategies come together in lecture as a way for Khan to organize his lectures around students’ questions and judge their progress with the assigned readings.
To set it up the reflections, he posts on his course web page a link to a Google form to be completed by noon the day before each week’s lecture: using the form, students submit 3 key points or “takeaways” from the readings, 2 confusing points from the upcoming material, and 1 confusing point from any of the previously covered material. During class, he stops about 3 or 4 times to offer a collaborative discussion opportunity, by asking students to discuss a concept with their neighbour, polling for the entire class to answer via iClickers, or combining both strategies to see how responses to a class poll change after students collaborate with their peers.
Accountability is an important part of applying these techniques, and Khan feels it is crucial to create an incentive for students to participate. The reflections help Khan plan his lecture to respond to the major issues that are on students’ minds, and he opens each lecture with a question based on the week’s poll. He will later stop in lecture and address questions students posed in advance. “They know I’m structuring the lecture around the questions and responding to the reflections.” He has also developed test questions related to the weekly reflections, which an important step for him in creating accountability and demonstrating the importance of the student-centred learning activities. “When you use these collaborative techniques, you have to show the link to evaluation,” he feels. It also helps him understand where concepts need to be better linked. “If there’s continual confusion about something”, Khan knows it’s an area that will need more clarification.
Khan finds that the techniques have energized his lectures and have helped him create a better dialogue with his students in class. “At the end of the day the technical content is in the textbook”, he says, but finds that when so many students still depend on the lecture, he needs to create discussions that go beyond only talking “at” the class. His students also enjoy that interaction breaks the monotony from their classes, and it addresses confusion early in the course. Most positively, he finds the methods have “warmed up” the class. “They are more comfortable speaking in class. It takes away the fear factor,” which is especially important for the non-native English speakers in his class who are less comfortable speaking up. An important takeaway for him is that the connections help him understand his students better, which he finds is especially crucial when he has students from a diverse range of backgrounds, as in the MBA program. “You need to know where to set the bar.”
Along the way, Khan has learned that although adding new strategies to his lectures increases his planning time, incorporating them has made lectures more interesting because he can manage the pace better. He finds interactive lectures create more value by giving him the ability to adapt his teaching to the specific needs of his group. Concerns about adapting to challenges of a digital age and decreasing attention spans become less pressing to him than thinking about how adapt in a way that improves the teaching and learning experience. He would recommend to any colleague to try similar techniques because of the opportunity to enjoy lectures more and increase engagement. “It’s really what they want”, he says of his students. “Teaching is not about how much information you can throw at students but how much sticks. Having five key points that stick is better than teaching ten points that don’t.“