At this research university (RU/VH), engineering students enrolled in the required first-semester calculus course participate in interactive workshops during discussion sections 8-10 times during the semester. In these workshops, students work in groups to solve relevant engineering-related problems. The goals include helping students a) develop a deeper understanding of calculus concepts, b) engage with their interests earlier in the curriculum, and c) experience positive peer-to-peer learning.
During Fall 2015 we conducted a small-scale experiment comparing different formats for workshop completion. Students enrolled in two out of the 12 discussion sections (the experimental sections) completed the workshop problems together in their small groups at chalkboards, yielding one written solution for each group. The rest of the students, enrolled in the other discussion sections (the control group), collaborated together sitting at tables, with each student ultimately responsible for completing her or his own solution on paper. The control group methodology, completing the workshops on paper, has been used for the workshops since their inception close to a decade ago.
Data collection during that small-scale experiment included: observation (including limited video recording) of experimental and control group workshop sections to detect possible differences in student interactions; student feedback regarding self-reported experiences of the value of the group work and the effects on their understanding of the material; and exit interviews with teaching assistants (TAs) regarding their observations.
The results of the Fall 2015 study were extremely promising. Feedback from the participating TAs indicated a strong preference for running the workshops at the chalkboards. They noted an increased level of interaction among the students, improved ability to monitor groups’ progress, and faster completion time with less need for TA intervention. The data from student feedback was less conclusive. Some benefits of chalkboard work clearly supported by the data include an improvement of student perception of problem difficulty and length. Other measures, such as whether students felt they learned something new or whether the workshops enhanced their understanding of calculus topics, favored chalkboard work in one TA’s sections but showed no meaningful difference in the other TA’s sections.
Based on the results of that initial study, during Fall 2016 we conducted an expanded experiment, with the same data collection, but involving all 300 students enrolled in the course. Each student completed approximately half of the workshops on paper and half at the chalkboards. Each TA led workshop sections both ways. Data collection is not complete, but preliminary feedback from the TAs again shows a strong preference for the chalkboard format. In this paper we will present analysis of the feedback from students from Fall 2016, focusing on any differences in perceived value of the group work or understanding of the material between chalkboard and paper formats. If student feedback data supports it, moving to work at chalkboards could be an easy way to increase the efficacy of collaborative active learning sessions.
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