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Category: Active Learning

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There's no question that students learn an enormous amount when they assume the role of teacher. That's why student presentations hold such great potential to enhance student ownership of the content. The problem is that while the student presenters learn much, in most cases the presentations are something of a purgatory for the remainder of the class.

I have found a positive alternative. I have students work in teams to develop a learning-oriented lesson instead of a presentation. Assessment is based not only on the quality of the content but also on the quality of their instruction. My students have little or no experience teaching academic content to peers, which means they need clearly written guidance and support from me. My mainly adult students bring prior professional and life experiences, which I think also contribute to the success of this assignment.

Here's an example of how I provide direction and support in a class on ethics. I have used the basic contours of the assignment in a variety of classes. The assignment is presented to students with this description:

Learning will be developed through a series of student-led team-taught lessons, each lesson lasting approximately 45 minutes. These lessons must not be in the form of lecture, but you should use teaching strategies that engage classmates with the content. Your team must discuss your planned lesson with me as early as possible and have its general shape approved before proceeding. Below is an example of what you could do in your lesson. Please note, each member of the team should play an active role in developing and leading the lesson.

  1. Give a brief introduction to the ethical question that explains why the issue is of contemporary significance. This section should be short—three minutes maximum!
  2. Break the class up into small groups and task each group with developing a defense of a particular perspective on the issue. To do that, those in the class will need relevant texts that support the position they must defend, including responses to alternative perspectives. Keep in mind that it takes time to think through philosophical material, so the amount of material presented should not exceed 1,000 words. Have each group in the class appoint a spokesperson. Allocate about 20 minutes to this section.
  3. Conduct a forum in which the spokespersons for the groups have three minutes to defend their respective positions. Invite others in the class to respond after all three of the defenses. Plan about 10 minutes for this part of the lesson.
  4. Present a brief case study and encourage the students to discuss it in light of the various perspectives just presented in the forum. Allocate about 10 minutes for this activity.
  5. In the time remaining, offer brief concluding remarks that highlight key points that have been made.

The guidance students need for this assignment diminishes each time they complete it. By the second or third time, they tackle lesson development with confidence. Beyond the deeper embrace of the content, my students have shown steady growth in their ability not merely to communicate but to develop perspective-taking skills. The assignment encourages the students presenting the lesson and others in the class to see issues from multiple perspectives.

I have used this task with classes of up to 35 students, breaking students into groups of three or four. The assignment has the added benefit of training in teamwork. In the assessment rubric I include a component that assesses the evidence of fair contribution of each member of team in preparation of presentation. If in doubt, I ask the team to document exactly which component of the work was done by which team member, thereby seeking to ensure that each group member contributes appropriately to preparation and leadership.

The learning that takes place through these lessons is far more potent than what occurred when I previously used presentations. Student teachers use creative approaches beyond what I expected. Their creativity appears to be enhanced because they're working in groups. Moving into the role of guide and teacher requires students to master the material at a higher level than occurs when they prepare a presentation. For the students being taught by a classmate, there's more learning, engagement, and enjoyment. And that's true for me as well.

In most national and regional quality assurance standards there is increasing advocacy not only for deeper levels of cognition, but also greater competence in communication skills. Both cognitive complexity and clarity of communication are promoted at a high level by this sort of assignment.