Using a Free-Form Lab: Chaos or Learning?

Using a Free-Form Lab: Chaos or Learning?

By Erin Hanlon
Mechanical Engineering Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Recently in my Friday afternoon class (who thought Friday afternoon was a good time to lecture, anyway?), as students’ eyes glassed over, one of them asked that we do a lab instead of the lecture that I had planned.

Having not planned a lab activity for that day at all, initially I hesitated to deviate from my carefully constructed plan. I didn’t have anything to give them to do, so how would this work? Would we just be wasting an hour of class time playing around with the lab equipment? What could they possible get out of this?

Knowing that flexibility is important (and realizing that I had already lost at least half of the students’ attention, anyway), I decided to allow the class to spend the remainder of their time working collaboratively in a ‘free lab’ setting. I gave some general guidelines so that they would be using their time constructively and using the equipment safely, but otherwise, I let them create their own goals and expectations. Once they had decided what they were trying to accomplish, I approved their plan and they started building.

In all of the previous labs that we had done in class, the students had very specific directions and measurements that were required. They weren’t coming up with suggestions or designing their own experiments.

When working during their free lab time, students were allowed to set things up and see how they worked differently when changes were made. They had the chance to notice how the decisions that they made based on their previous coursework altered their outcomes. They were also forced to justify their choices and think about the decisions that they were making instead of strictly following the steps provided to them.

I found that using a free lab approach provided a valuable lesson in problem solving and hypothesizing that was missing from the previous lab exercises. Students were able to exercise their system design skills and see that it wasn’t just plopping together a bunch of pieces to see what works. This was a much better representation of what technicians or engineers would be doing in the ‘real world,’ and having them get a glimpse of that in the classroom was very valuable.

This is a lesson that I will implement with intention into future courses. I believe it was successful in providing hands-on learning in a format different from what students were used to being exposed to and more realistic to what they can expect in the future.

Let the Students Teach

Let the Students Teach

By John Burbage
Bio/Chem Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

If you have ever taught a class in an accelerated format, you know how hard it can be to keep the student’s attention for three, four, or even 5 hours. To keep the students engaged, I like to include a project that requires the students to become the teachers. Let me share with you an example that I have used in a five hour Environmental Science class. Continue reading

5 Low Prep Student-Centered Learning Strategies



By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall back on lecture or other teacher-centered instructional methods when crunch time comes. You’ve got a ton of grading to do, reporting deadlines to meet, and 1,001 emails waiting gloomily in your inbox.

There’s just no time to plan an engaging lesson.

Well, if you find yourself in such a situation, or if you are just looking for inspiration, here are five student-centered strategies that take very little prep time and can make a traditional lecture much more effective.


Instead of asking a question to the class and staring at blank faces until you call on that one go-to student at the front of the class who always has the right answer, try this.

  1. Ask a question or give a problem.
  2. Give everyone a chance to write down the solution on their own for a few minutes.
  3. Give students a few minutes to discuss their thoughts with a peer.
  4. Ask a few students to share their answer with the class.

Think-Pair-Share transforms an awkward Q&A into a chance for the entire to class to participate in the type of wrestling with a problem that your discipline involves. As an added bonus, students will share more deeply and more freely in front of the rest of the class if they’ve had time to think on their own and confirm their answers with a peer first.

The Minute Paper

It doesn’t have to be exactly one minute, sometimes two or three are okay. But the idea is that at the end of a lesson (or even in the midst of it) you give students a small amount of time to write down everything they know about the topic of the day in a focused manner.

For example, at the end of a lecture on the difference between summarizing an article and analyzing one, I might tell students “You have two minutes to explain to me how your approach to reading this article will be different if I am asking you to analyze it. Go!”

The Minute Paper serves as both an assessment for you (to gauge how well students absorbed the lesson) and also as summarizer for students (to solidify skills in their memory).

Concept Maps

A concept map is a visual depiction of how different ideas relate, like this:


Before a lesson or lecture, give students a list of 10 or so key terms, ideas, etc. that you’ll be working on today. Write them on the board or put them on a handout so that everyone can see them. During the lesson, have students draw a concept map to show the relationship between all of these terms. Encourage them to take other important notes in the white space on their map as well.

Priming Questions

If you are going to be lecturing or providing direct instruction, it’s a good idea to prime your students for the material by activating their prior knowledge. One way to do this is to use the first 10 minutes of class to allow students to think through a problem that the lecture material will help solve.

Think about why this material matters and pose a stimulating question to students. Give them a few minutes to write about their thoughts (even better, do a think-pair-share).

For example, if you are planning a lecture on capitalism for a political science class, you might ask students What do you think our society would look like if everyone was paid the same amount? Would you want to live in it? Why or why not?


A full scale debate might take a lot of prep, on your part and the students’. But, you can replace parts of a traditional lecture with a short mini-debate. Instead of lecturing on a topic that might normally take 20 minutes, pose the question addressed by your lecture to the class.

Then, divide them into two or more teams, and assign each team a different perspective. Give them 10 minutes to research (in the textbook, on Google, etc.) all of the evidence that supports their assigned position on the topic. Then give each team 3 minutes to defend its position.

For example, if this blog post were a class, I might pose the question Is student-centered learning worth your time?.

If your last name starts A – M, your on Team Red.

If your last name starts N – Z, your on Team Blue.

Team Red = Student-centered learning IS NOT worth your time.

Team Blue = Student-centered learning IS worth your time.

Defend your position in the comments. Go!

See what I did there.


Summer reading


By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

For most of us, the summer lull is here.

The desks are empty, the cafeteria line is short, and there is always a free computer at the open lab.

And–while this is a time for family, friends, beaches, and barbecues–teachers everywhere use their two or three months off for another very important task as well: reflection.

Summer is a time when our teaching load is slim or non-existent, and so we have a chance to think back on our successes and failure. On what worked and what didn’t. On the students who made it and the ones who we couldn’t manage to help enough. Summer is a time when we rethink our pedagogy and practices so that, come autumn, our classes are even more engaging and our students even more successful.

And so, I’ll share this list of 50 alternatives to lecture from TeachThought to add to your summer reading.

Lecture isn’t bad, in and of itself, but it is easy. Because lecture is easy, and because PowerPoint templates and bullet points are so darn tempting, we often fall into the lecture rut. So if you’re looking for some fresh ideas for getting students thinking, reflect on a few of these strategies each day in between pool parties and Dean Koontz novels.

And don’t forget: just because a lot of us aren’t teaching, we’ll still be blogging all summer long. Check in from time to time and let us know how your reflection is going.

Don’t work too hard, though. It’s your break, and you’ve earned it.

An Online Book Club: Teaching Naked by José Bowen (Part 4 of 5)

Naked Classroom

By Ernie Kulhanek
English Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Welcome back to the online book club discussion of Teaching Naked, by Dr. Jose Bowen. If you missed our review of the Preface, Part I: The Digital Landscape, or the first section of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses, just follow the links to catch up. Today we’ll be looking at chapters 7 and 8, which make up the second section of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses.

Please feel welcome to interact with the club by reading and commenting at the bottom of each post. Continue reading

5 Low-Tech Ways to Increase Engagement in Lectures

By Karen Mahom
Author of “disrupt learning!

Today I attended a two-hour workshop put on by a local government agency that shall go unnamed, to protect the not-so-innocent.  It was a good workshop.  I was interested in the topic and I learned a few new things.  That learning part is not always a guarantee with any workshop, so I count myself lucky.  But the part that was disappointing was the format of the workshop.  It was your average PowerPoint and sage on the stage bit.  Heck, I brought my laptop to take notes and they didn’t even have a WiFi network that I could use.  (I’m big on Google Docs lately, so no WiFi presents a problem!)

My buddy Scott McLeod has been talking on his site and on twitter lately about the fact that technology can really enhance learning in the classroom, and I agree.  And I’m the first one to say that the way to make a lecture much better is by putting student response devices (“clickers”) in the hands of the whole audience to drive engagement.  But what about the situation that the teacher of this workshop was in today?  In a setting where the closest thing to modern technology he had was a tabletop projector (that’s right, not even a short-throw)?  Yes, we were 10 adults attending the workshop on a topic of interest, but what are some low tech things that this instructor could have done to keep us engaged?  I thought about it the whole way home and here’s my list:

1. My go-to method that I’ve talked about before on this blog is using squares of colored construction paper for formative assessment questions.  Simple?  Yes.  Cheap?  Yes.  Gets the job done?  Also yes.  And as I’ve said before as well, kids and grown-ups alike all love it.  Also, works nicely with PowerPoint presentations where it’s simple enough to color code your questions, polls, etc. to match the color of the paper you have.  Ask a question, have your participants hold up the color that they think represents the correct answer.  They’ve made an active response and you now have some good info about the effectiveness of your presentation.

2. Ask your workshop participants to break into pairs or small groups to discuss formative assessment items.  Eric Mazur does this all the time with his Peer Instruction method.  He asks a question, has students answer it, breaks them into groups to discuss the answer, and then has them come back together and answer the question again.  Sure, he uses clickers, but there’s no reason that you can’t do the same thing with that colored construction paper too!  And the extra benefit, if you check out Mazur’s work, is that there are plenty of data demonstrating that the Peer Instruction method improves student outcomes!

3. Develop some guided notes for your lecture.  Guided notes are handouts that have overviews or outlines of the lecture, but with blank spaces for key concepts, ideas, facts, definitions, etc.  As the lecture progresses, the learner’s job is to fill in those blanks.  I have heard some teachers scoff at this idea, saying that it is the job of the learners to take good notes on their own.  But that kind of misses the point of guided notes.  The purpose of guided notes is to get the learners more engaged; needing to pay attention in order to fill in the blanks increases the amount of active listening.  And there is no reason that the “blanks” are limited just to those in text.  The blanks can be in labels for figures, charts or graphs.  The blanks can require the learner to draw something.  Get creative…the blanks can really be anything!  And to go one step further, why not have learners pair up at the end of class to compare their completed guided notes?  I think guided notes are great because not only do they increase learner engagement, but you, as the instructor, know that the learners leave with the most important take-aways from your lecture.

4. Add some two-minute sprints with self-graphing.  Self-graphing can really be combined with any of the other methods, but it’s especially effective if you add two-minute sprints at regular intervals throughout the workshop.  Whatever you ask the participants to do, you want it to be a discrete task that they can do quickly because they only have two minutes!  Start the timer and turn them loose!  Then ask them to graph the number correct per minute that they score; as they complete multiple sprints and graph the results they see their progress over the course of the workshop.  They don’t have to turn in their graphs and you don’t even need to look at them if you don’t want to.  But you would be amazed at how much kids and adults like to see the line going up on the graph!  And one of the great things is that this is individualized.  The learners are only competing against themselves, trying to improve from the last sprint.  I used this method when I taught undergraduates remedial skills, including writing.  One of the problems that I had was that the students didn’t produce large enough writing samples to edit.  As anyone who teaches writing know, first there has to besome writing before it can be edited and shaped.  So I used the two-minute sprint method (though I used five-minute intervals) to get the students’ rates of writing words up.  And it worked.  Kids who were writing fewer than three sentences (and usually fragments, at that) at the beginning of the semester were writing three or four paragraphs by the end of the semester.  And we could work on real improvements with that much writing.

5.   Okay, this one’s up to you!  What are some low-tech techniques YOU have used to increase engagement in lectures?  Please let us all know!  For sure, high-tech solutions are great, but as we know, not everyone has those available on an ongoing basis.  So let’s hear it!!

To learn more about Dr. Scott McLeod, check out his blog, Dangerously Irrelevant or follow him on twitter @mcleod.

To learn more about Dr. Eric Mazur, visit the website for his group at Harvard or follow him on twitter @eric_mazur.