Innovative teaching and active learning are the foundation of Paul Blowers’ teaching philosophy. A university distinguished professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Arizona, he teaches in a space specifically designed for collaborative learning and uses a variety of educational technologies to encourage student engagement and success in his large STEM classes.
Despite the benefits of his classroom set-up, and the range of technologies incorporated into his lessons, Blowers found that some students still were not grasping fundamental concepts. This was clear every time his students attempted to solve multi-step problems assigned during class.
“I would give students a very long time to do an activity,” he said. “The good students would finish it. The struggling students would make a good, serious attempt to solve the problem, but would never make it to the end.”
Blowers had all of the pieces in place for active learning, but he lacked the real-time data necessary to track student understanding and to assess where they were encountering stumbling blocks.
He initially used voting cards – sheets of paper with different letters and colors – that students could hold up to indicate their answers to multiple-choice questions. However, he soon realized that this limited approach did not meet his needs.
“I started introducing clicker questions into my class just to drive people toward the answer. It turns out that I could use these questions much more powerfully if I use them to understand what students are thinking while we work.”
Dr Paul Blowers
University Distinguished Professor
University of Arizona
A fellow instructor introduced him to TurningPoint interactive polling software a few years ago when they were co-teaching. This experience made him want to explore the potential of TurningPoint as a tool for engagement, formative assessment and garnering insight into his students’ learning. He was particularly intrigued by the wide variety of question types that he could employ, ranging from multiple-choice and numeric response to Likert and short-answer.
Blowers found that the student response technology provided just what he wanted, and started incorporating between 10 and 18 questions into every 50-minute class. He recounted one particularly eye-opening moment when he asked what he thought was a simple question, only to discover that most of the class did not know the correct answer. This feedback allowed him to make a real-time, in-class adjustment in order to discuss something his students actually needed to know, rather than just what he thought they needed.
“I started introducing clicker questions into my class just to drive people toward the answer,” he said. “It turns out that I could use these questions much more powerfully if I use them to understand what students are thinking while we work.”
He often asks questions that require students to apply what they learned in ways that demonstrate deeper knowledge that goes well beyond what would be possible with multiple-choice.
“We’re forcing them to make decisions that we as experts do when we read any of these types of problems,” he said. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is to get them to realize the discrete thinking that happens in problem solving.”
TurningPoint also helps to pre-emptively address student push-back against collaborative learning itself. He simply assigns a problem, has students work individually for a few minutes and then asks them to reply to the statement, “I feel confident in my ability to solve this problem.” After a few minutes of team work, they then respond to, “We believe our team can solve this problem.” According to Blowers, the answers shift dramatically from disagree to agree. Because the whole class can see this shift, they begin to feel more invested in working together.
“It is amazing what happens. Their ability to solve this problem, their self-efficacy, goes up because they now believe that the team is valuable,” he said. “We have buy-in that talking to other people has value and they believe it’s going to lead to a better outcome.”