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Discovery Teaching and Learning

And intentionally incorporating discovery learning or other new ideas into your undergraduate class.

March 4, 2018

Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa where he teaches in the Department of Rhetoric and serves as the Humanities Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Center for Teaching. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien.

Each semester, I make an effort to try something new in my classroom, whether it be a small change like tweaking assignments and readings or a large one like switching textbooks. This year, intrigued by an article on creating a “humanities lab”, I decided to experiment with intentionally implementing discovery learning activities in my classes.

Discovery learning, often called problem-based or inquiry-based learning, involves presenting students with some sort of task, often in the form of a problem or question, that challenges students to develop the skills or knowledge used in the course. Most disciplines use discovery learning in some form or another (the sciences obviously use them a great deal and the papers I assign are arguably large discovery learning projects), but I wanted to see what would happen if I made them a central element of our class time on a regular basis. So, at the start of this academic year, equipped with a handful of resources (1, 2, & 3) from our Center for Teaching, I began integrating regular discovery learning activities in my class.

I started slow (guided in part by James Lang’s phenomenal Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), implementing one or two larger discovery learning activities each month. This semester, I started devoting one hour of class time each week to a discovery learning activity. Some are very open-ended like giving students groups of sources on a topic and asking them to compare them as an introduction to rhetorical analysis. Others are more directive such as having groups of students read related academic articles and challenging them to construct a synthesis matrix to help them explore the conventions of academic discourse and good research practices. After a semester and a half of making these activities a regular part of my teaching, I’ve noticed some distinct benefits and obstacles to their use.

The biggest benefit to these activities is that they are a lot of fun to teach. I get to explain the day’s task and allow students to run with it, letting them direct themselves as I move around, watching the groups and checking in with them, providing the occasional nudge or guiding question. Class times seems to fly by, and students seem genuinely engaged in the task at hand despite the fact that our designated “lab” day is a Friday morning class session. Students help each other and come up with interesting and creative solutions and interpretations that I could not have imagined. Best of all, students actually seem to learn the content better than if we were just to discuss it or apply a lesson from a reading after the fact.

Implementing these activities can be a little daunting. The biggest obstacle for me was fear about ceding so much responsibility and control to students. It’s one thing to do a jigsaw discussion or stage a class debate, it’s quite another to present students with a task or question and step aside and trust them to run with it. My second concern was that it was going to be a ton of work to prepare the activities and that it was going to consume all of my time. I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. My students tended to jump right into the activities and, though some activities were more successful than others, I walked away from each class session excited about the level of engagement that my students had shown. Similarly, though some of the activities involved a little more prep work than my average lesson plan (finding four or five different, but related articles for the synthesis matrix activity was probably the most time-consuming activity to prepare), most took about the same time to prepare and can be used in the future with little or no additional prep work.

In addition to these obstacles, there are a couple of other strategies that I’ve found really effective based on my experiences (and especially my mistakes):

Start Slow
It’s easy to get really excited about implementing a new method or lesson plan in your classroom and it’s just as easy (at least in my experience) to let your vision expand beyond the bounds of your energy or time. Making changes to your lesson plan, large or small, requires a certain amount of planning and preparation, and it’s important not to take on too much at once. I found it far easier to make small, incremental changes than to try to rework my whole course. Not only is it much more practical in terms of time management, it also makes it a lot easier to remain excited about the changes and the lessons.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
There are a lot of great resources out there on discovery and problem-based learning. In addition to the resources above, there is a lot of guidance on designing discovery learning activities and there are a lot of discipline-specific activities online, especially at the University of Deleware’s PBL Clearinghouse. Building upon these resources and riffing on great activities will save you a lot of time and energy in the long run.

Observe and Be Observed
It can be hard to gauge the success of new activities in the classroom especially if, like me, you didn’t have a lot of experience with similar activities during your own education. Getting an outside perspective or perspectives can make the process of implementing new activities go a lot smoother. Ask your teaching mentor or someone from your teaching resource center to sit in on a class where you are trying new activities out can make the process go a lot smoother and is great professional development besides.

Reflect Often
Having students reflect on their learning is a central part of discovery learning, but it shouldn’t end with the students. Perhaps the greatest benefit of implementing regular discovery learning activities is that it allows the instructor to learn and discover as well. My students were constantly teaching me new things from novel ways to explain or apply a concept to creative solutions to difficult problems. The most rewarding part of this experiment with discovery learning has been getting to learn alongside my students, making my own discoveries about teaching and learning.

Have you had any experiences with discovery or problem-based learning? Do you have any great class activities to share?

[Image by Pixabay user Felix_Broennimann and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]


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