The Success of Four Activities Designed to Engage Students

How can we engage students who are enrolled in large courses so they become active learners? I used four activities designed to get students involved, support their efforts to learn, and personalize the material in an introductory psychology course. How well did they work? For analysis, I divided the 52 students in my course into four groups, or quadrants, using their final overall course scores to place them in high- to low-performance groups.

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How can we engage students who are enrolled in large courses so they become active learners? I used four activities designed to get students involved, support their efforts to learn, and personalize the material in an introductory psychology course. How well did they work? For analysis, I divided the 52 students in my course into four groups, or quadrants, using their final overall course scores to place them in high- to low-performance groups. Final course scores were computed as points on a scale of 1 to 100, which were then reported as letter grades. Then I looked at how involved students in each group were in the engagement activities. I'll start with a description of each of the engagement activities.  Optional retake exams. There were three in-class exams (each worth 20 percent) and a final exam. Each exam included short-answer and essay questions. Students could opt to retake any or all of the three in-class exams. The retakes, administered electronically, were personalized. For questions that students missed on the exam, new versions of the questions appeared on their individually constructed retake exam. Retakes were therefore a mastery system that encouraged students to focus on those concepts they did not understand. Based on the retake scores, points were added, not subtracted.  Self-designed essays. Before every exam, each student had the option of submitting an essay question that then became one of the questions on her or his exam. This gave students a chance to focus on a question, hopefully one of interest to them, and prepare an answer in advance of the exam.   In-class writing. The course included 10 “two-minute write” exercises, done in class. These focused on understanding key concepts or applying course material to real-life situations. For example, “Provide an example of how understanding the nervous system can improve the quality of psychological life.” For each in-class write completed, students earned one point on their final course score, up to a maximum of seven points.   Optional review sessions. These were scheduled before each exam during non-class times. Students were asked to bring questions to these sessions. Students could also test their knowledge of key concepts in advance of exams using a self-rating system. In class, we debated controversial topics using student teams.   Here's a brief summary of  how well each of these approaches engaged students in learning the course content.  Optional retake exams. The percentage of retakes (starting with those in the highest quadrant, moving to the lowest) were 12 percent, 51 percent, 44 percent, and 51 percent. The average improvement in each test score for the four groups was, respectively, 4.42, 4.55, 6.76, and 10.3 percentage points. Estimates of the improvement in the final course percentage for anyone taking all three retakes were 2.65, 2.73, 4.06, and 6.18 (again from the highest to the lowest group). The potential grade enhancements ranged from one-quarter of a final letter grade for the strongest students to more than one-half a letter grade for the lowest-performing students. Overall, students took 38 percent of the maximum number of retake exams. Students in the lowest-scoring group did not do retakes that would have substantially improved their course grades.   Self-designed essays. The total number of questions submitted by students in the highest to lowest groups were 17, 13, nine, and one. Overall, the percentage of submitted questions was 25 percent of the maximum possible, with a badly skewed distribution. The lowest-performing students took virtually no advantage of this opportunity, submitting one essay out of a potential for 39 submissions.   In-class writes. The average number of completed writes by quartile of student success was 9.43, 9.38, 9.77, and 7.15 (again, highest to lowest). In addition to showing lower participation, 39 percent of the bottom-quadrant students completed fewer than the minimum required number of seven.   Optional review sessions. There were four review sessions, one before each in-class examination and one before the final. The percentages of sessions attended by students in the four success quadrants were 30 percent, 33 percent, 41 percent, and 31 percent (highest to lowest). It is notable that students in the lowest quadrant were no more likely to attend such sessions than the other students were.  As a whole, students took substantial but not universal advantage of these activities. Students in the lowest quadrant passed up many opportunities to improve their scores. Students in the lowest-performing group took 51 percent of the maximum possible exam retakes, 2.6 percent of the maximum opportunities to write an essay question, 72 percent of the maximum possible in-class writing opportunities, and 31 percent of possible exam review opportunities. Their choices seem to reflect a lack of engagement, motivation, or perhaps self-confidence. What I learned from this endeavor is if we simply provide engagement activities and opportunities, we cannot assume that those who need them most will take advantage of what's being offered. David Burrows (david.burrows@lawrence.edu), PhD, is a professor of psychology and director of inclusive pedagogy at Lawrence University, Wisconsin.