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Learning from MIT on STEAM Education

 

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About the Initiative

In the late 1990s, educational innovations in teaching freshman physics, specifically a method called interactive engagement, were delivering greater learning gains than the traditional lecture format. During that time, attendance at MIT’s freshman physics course was low, and many students had a tough time understanding the concepts of first-year physics. Traditional lectures, although excellent for many purposes, do not convey concepts well because of their passive nature.

Grappling with the mismatch between traditional learning methods and how students actually learn, Professor John Belcher teamed up with Peter Dourmashkin and David Litster to reformat the teaching of freshman physics at MIT with a new mix of pedagogy, technology, and classroom design. Borrowing from innovations made at other universities, most notably from North Carolina State University's Scale-Up program, the team initiated the Technology-Enabled Active Learning initiative (TEAL) at MIT. It became a 17-year ongoing experiment at MIT to blend active learning and online materials into a technologically and collaboratively rich environment for the Physics discipline.

 

We interviewed Peter Dourmashkin, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics at MIT and one of the founding members of the TEAL initiative, to distill more insights about the TEAL initiative and its implications for the K-12 space:

 

Setting the Vision

Learning Principles

 

TEAL initiative embraces a Backwards Course Design model. Instead of having the course be defined by content, the design is driven by the desired outcomes. By first defining the learning objectives (i.e. the framework, goals and context for the knowledge and skills students should learn), an educator can then decide what are the acceptable evidence for the objectives and decide on the right instructional approach. As a result, the outcome drives content.

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:
Have you defined clearly the learning goals for your course, so that content is aligned with the outcome?

In order to bond content, conceptual understanding and applications, TEAL initiative uses a Blended Learning Structure, i.e. using digital tools and media (e.g. MITx platform) in conjunction with in-class teaching methods. By leveraging digital tools, some content delivery can be shifted to pre- and post-class to maximize in-class learning and also provide immediate feedback to students. In-class learning can then be focused on engaging students through practice to develop their conceptual and analytic understanding of content.

Co-operative learning and peer instruction are also heavily emphasized in the TEAL initiative. TEAL believes that since science and engineering require teamwork, it is important to have students learn how to work with others. The opportunities for peer instruction also reinforce knowledge.

 

Enabling Active Learning Within Each Discipline

Curriculum & Instruction

 

The TEAL model is being adopted in for first-year physics class at MIT, including for 8.01 Classical Mechanics and 8.02 Electricity and Magnetism. All these classes follow the Blended Learning Structure, which three major stages:

 

During the pre-class stage, students will have to go through reading assignments with discussion forum and/or short video clips on focused topics. Multiple choices and analytical questions with immediate online feedback are carefully interspaced with the text/videos.

 

During the in-class stage, class time is focused on active learning by engaging students through practice to develop their conceptual and analytical understanding of content. A class begins with a concept/clicker question that connects with the pre-class activity. This is followed by an active learning sequence that includes simulations and visualizations, group problem solving, discovery activities, discussion questions, project-based learning etc. Conceptual issues relevant to post-class review videos will also be identified.

During the post-class, students have to opportunity to access review sequences (online video dedicated to helping students master material), problem sets (with answer checkers that provide immediate feedback) as well as written assignments. Examples of solved practice problem and hints for homework will also be provided.


Cooperative learning and peer instruction are two very important elements for TEAL. Throughout the class, three students have to form a student group to engage in group problem solving, discussions, projects etc. throughout the course. Peter Dourmashkin (one of the founding members of the TEAL initiative) told us that one major challenge they face was to promote the cooperative learning culture, since some students with prior knowledge/ higher ability were reluctant to help their peers. In response to this, the TEAL team decided to grade in accordance with absolute standards instead of grading on a curve. They also incorporated the role of Undergraduate Teaching Assistants (UTAs), which were recruited from students who have done well in the course and nominated by peers for being supportive in group learning. The UTAs helped facilitate peer instruction, guide students during active learning sessions and helped course instructors identify student difficulties. These changes were found to be transformative in building a positive learning culture.

Watch this video created by MIT TEAL on the elements of effective teaching in the TEAL classroom:

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:
How can your school develop/ leverage a rich online learning component to complement in-class learning?
Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:
How can you encourage student participation in class? Can you adopt some of the active learning sequence mentioned?

Scheduling

 

In order to maximize the value of a Blended Learning Sequence, the weekly schedule for a TEAL class is carefully crafted. Classes are held three times a week, twice in a 2-hr block and once in a 1-hr block. The first 2-hr session introduces students to the concepts, the second 2-hr session introduces students to the problem solving pieces, while the third 1-hr session is reserved entirely for group problem solving:

 

A weekly TEAL sequence would look like the following:

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:
Instead of scheduling classes and learning components in order to minimize logistics hassles, how can we do it in a way that maximizes learning effectiveness for students?

Learning Space

 

Modeled after North Carolina State University's (NCSU's) Scale-Up Classrooms, the architectural design of a TEAL classroom is done to promote learning.

 

The two 3,000-square-foot TEAL classrooms each contain an instructor's workstation in the center of the room surrounded by 13 round tables, each seating nine students. Thirteen whiteboards and eight video projectors with screens dot the room's periphery. Each table holds three groups of three. Groups are formed by mixing students of varying levels of knowledge in a single group to facilitate peer instruction. Each group uses a computer to view lecture slides and collect data from experiments.

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:

Infrastructure for learning  (Classroom, online learning platform) is important to realize active and blended learning.

What types of modifications to pre-existing learning spaces are feasible in your school? What are the mechanisms available to build consensus for future changes to learning environments?

Assessment

 

The TEAL initiative uses multiple elements to assess students learning, including pre-test, in-class work, homework, study guides, mid-term examinations, final examinations, and post-tests. The online digital tools leveraged also allows the provision of immediate feedback to students to enhance their problem solving skills.

Overall, the TEAL initiative has identified three essential strategies to assess learning:

  1. Identify which set of learning outcomes are attached to each activity.

  2. Measure the utility of each of the activity through a variety of assessment strategies

  3. Use data collected from student online trajectories to correlate results of dedicated practice with learning outcomes

 

To ensure that the design of the TEAL courses are effective, they also conduct experiments to evaluate the following:

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:

How can you incorporate assessment instruments with learning objectives? How can you use assessments to reinforce learning goals?

 
 
 
 
 
 

Building Capacity

Professional Development

 

TEAL believes that the role of a teacher in active learning is to lay out the framework, goals and context for the knowledge and skills he/she wants students to learn. There are four particular concepts that TEAL believe all teachers (as well as students should know): (1) Motivation is important for learning and is an essential part of effective teaching; (2) Teachers should see themselves as a “coach of thinking” rather than as a “dispenser of information; (3) Timely and specific feedback is crucial for learning; (4) Teachers should teach students how to learn.

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:
Do you agree with these four concepts? How do you promote these within your school?
Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:

Recognizing that most faculty members are used to traditional lecture-based teaching, the TEAL initiative makes significant effort to ensure that faculty understands how to teach in an active learning classroom. For faculty teacher training, new faculty members gain direct experience understanding the learning issues common to first-year students. Not only do they have to sit together in the TEAL classroom and observe the first section, they also discuss together on the teaching/learning issues and how they will teach their sections.

The weekly Teaching Team Meetings is also an important tool to ensure teaching quality. The Teaching Team consist of faculty members, graduate and undergraduate teaching assistant, as well as student peer instructors. The meeting serves five major purposes: (i) Identify excellent students and those who need help; (ii) Conduct teacher training sessions; (iii) Articulate weekly learning goals, (iv) Provide the opportunity for constructive feedback from students; (v) Provide ongoing mentoring for undergraduate teaching assistants.

How do you engineer opportunities in your school to promote effective teaching methodologies?
Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:
Have you set clear objectives for your teaching team meetings?
 

References:

  • Dourmashkin, P. . Blended Learning: Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) (Powerpoint Presentation).

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