Ensuring learners get the point: wrapping up case-based sessions effectively

We often spend a lot of time planning classes, especially case-based small group learning (SGL) sessions. We tailor our sessional learning objectives to the course objectives that have been assigned, selected solid preparatory materials, build great cases and craft meaningful questions for groups to work through.

This makes sense, as the small group learning (SGL) format used in Queen’s UGME program is modeled on Larry Michaelsen’s team-based learning (TBL) instructional strategy that uses the majority of in-class time for decision-based application assignments done in teams.

One comment we often read on course evaluation forms and hear directly from students, however, is that sometimes learners walk away from an SGL session and still aren’t sure what’s important.

Much of the focus in the literature on TBL is on the doing – setting things up, building great cases, asking good questions to foster active learning. There’s not as much written about how to finish well.

Wrapping up your SGL session should be as much a planned part of your teaching as preparing the cases themselves. If you build the time into your teaching plan, you won’t feel like you’re shouting to learners’ backs as they exit the classroom, or cut off as the next instructor arrives. Nor will you find yourself promising to post the “answers” to the cases on Elentra. Sometimes it’s not the answers that are important, but the steps students take to get there.

Wallace, Walker, Braseby and Sweet remind us that the flipped classroom we use for SGL (preparation before class, application in class) is one “where students adopt the role of cognitive apprentice to practice thinking like an expert within the field by applying their knowledge and skills to increasingly challenging problems.” One such challenge is figuring out what the key take-away points are from an SGL session. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to plan your session summary, but then have students take the lead since “the expert’s presence is crucial to intervene at the appropriate times, to resolve misconceptions, or to lead the apprentices through the confusion when they get stuck.”[1]

So, have your own summary slide ready – related to your session objectives – but keep it in reserve. In keeping with the active-learning focus of SGL, save the last 10 minutes of class to have the groups generate the key take-away points, share them, and fill in any gaps from your own list.

Here’s a suggested format:

  1. Prompt the groups to generate their own study list: “Now that we’ve worked through these three cases, what are the four key take away points you have about this type of presentation?”
  2. Give the groups 3-4 minutes to generate their own lists
  3. To debrief the large group, do a round of up four or five groups each adding one item to a study list.
  4. Share your own list – and how it relates to the points the student raised. This is a time to fill in any gaps and clarify what level of application you’ll be using on assessments.
  5. If you’d like, preview an exam question (real or mock): “After these cases, and considering these take-away points, I expect that you could answer an exam question like this one.” This can make the level of application you’re expecting very concrete.

Why take the time to wrap up a session this way? Students often ask (in various ways) what the point is of a session. With clear objectives and good cases, they should also develop the skills to draw those connections themselves. This takes scaffolding from the instructor. As Maryellen Weimer, PhD, writes in Faculty Focus, “Weaning students from their dependence on teachers is a developmental process. Rather than making them do it all on their own, teachers can do some of the work, provide part of the answer, or start with one example and ask them for others. The balance of who’s doing the work gradually shifts, and that gives students a chance to figure out what the teacher is doing and why.”


If you would like assistance preparing any part of your SGL teaching, please get in touch. You can reach me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca


[1] Wallace, M. L., Walker, J. D., Braseby, A. M., & Sweet, M. S. (2014). “Now, what happens during class?” Using team-based learning to optimize the role of expertise within the flipped classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 253-273.

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When your objective is to write learning objectives…

Several times over the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with course directors and instructors about writing learning objectives.

Many people – from award-winning educators to rookies and everyone in between – find writing learning objectives a challenge. The typical advice of write out who will do what under what conditions is vague, so it’s often not very helpful.

“General” learning objectives – from our UGME Competency Framework, aka the Red Book* – are already assigned to your course, and possibly to your session by your course director.

The key task for instructors is to take these general objectives and annotate them with specific objectives for their sessions, including what level of learning, such as comprehension, application or analysis. (This is from something called “Bloom’s Taxonomy”, if you’re interested in the research behind this).

A natural starting point is: What do you want your learners to take away from your session?

Frequently the response is:

  •  “I want them to know….”
  •  “I want them to understand….”
  •  “I want them to be able to…”

Once you’ve wrestled something like this into sentences, I realize it’s disheartening to have someone like me come along and say, “Uh, no, that’s not up to scratch.”

What’s wrong with “know” and “understand”? Isn’t that exactly what we’d like our students to walk away with – knowledge, understanding, skills? Absolutely. The challenge with these so-called “bad objective verbs” is that we can’t measure them through assessment. How do we know they know?

That’s the starting point for writing a better learning objective. If you want to assess that students know something, how will you assess that?

For example, while we can’t readily assess if a learner “understands” a concept, we can assess whether they can “define”, “describe”, “analyze”, or “summarize” material.

Here’s my “secret” that I use all the time to write learning objectives – I can’t memorize anything to save my life, so I rely on what I informally call my Verb Cheat Sheet. The one I’ve used for many years was published by Washington Hospital Centre, Office of Continuing Medical Education. It list cognitive domains (levels) and suggests verbs for each one. There are many such lists available on the Internet if you search “learning objectives” (here’s another one that’s more colourful than my basic chart, below).

Screen shot 2017-01-16 at 2.43.06 PM

Well-written learning objectives can help learners focus on what material they need to learn and what level of mastery is expected. Well-written objectives can assist instructors in creating assessment questions by reminding you of the skills you want students to demonstrate.

Here’s my quick three step method to annotating your assigned objectives on your MEdTech Learning Event page with your learning-event specific objectives:

  1. Start with writing your know or understand statements: what do you want learners to know or understand after your session?
  2. Think about what level of understanding you want students to demonstrate and how you would measure that (scan the verb chart for ideas)
  3. Write a declarative sentence of your expectation of students’ abilities following your session. In your draft, start it off with “The learner will”. For example: The learner will identify the bones of the hand on a reference diagram. Your objective would be: “Identify the bones of the hand on a reference diagram.”

As a fourth step, feel free to email your draft objectives to me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca for review and assistance (if needed). I’m happy to help.

 


Table excerpted from Washington Hospital Center, Office of Continuing Medical Education’s “Behavioral Verbs for Writing Objectives in the Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor Domains” (no date).

* The “Red Book” got its name because for the first edition (we’re now on the fourth), the card stock used for the cover was red. Over time, everyone started calling it the “Red Book”.

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