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Teaching techniques for keeping pupils engaged

Pupils and students learn best if they are actively doing something with the material. Professor Wilfried Admiraal is studying the best teaching methods and assignments to achieve this.

Problem-solving assignments in secondary education

Research shows that pupils and students learn best if they are actively doing something with the material being taught. What techniques and assignments should you use to achieve that? Wilfried Admiraal conducts research on these sorts of issues in secondary and higher education, using a mix of practice and theory. Projects are carried out in a classroom, together with the teachers. And sometimes teachers conduct the research entirely on their own. Admiraal distils some general conclusions from this practical research.

For example, at the secondary-school level he conducted research on the best assignments for getting pupils to learn actively. ‘That works best if pupils are given so-called problem-solving tasks that they have to carry out in a small group,’ says Admiraal. ‘Experience shows that the best assignments present a cognitive conflict. When reading a problem, pupils need to think: “Huh? I don’t get this.” At the same time, they need to have the feeling that the problem can be solved if they just work on it together.’

Pupils work together on a problem: Why does Fabio want to stay in the favela?

Mystery in the favela
A good example of this sort of assignment is his so-called mysteries, which were used at six schools for a research project.
The mysteries were intended to teach pupils to think geographically. One of the assignments is about Fabio, who lives in a favela (a slum) in Rio de Janeiro. The favela gets ravaged by landslides. Even so, for diverse geographic and economic reasons, Fabio refuses to leave. The pupils are given bits of information, including about the area where Fabio lives and how long it takes for him to get to Rio’s city centre. The pupils then have to figure out how Fabio’s motivations fit together and make a group presentation.

The study showed that pupils who worked on this sort of assignment had better learning results in the area of thinking geographically than those who learned this way of thinking from a book.

Higher education: digital learning environments

In higher education, Admiraal looks at the best digital learning environments (such as MOOCs and other kinds of online instruction) for stimulating active learning. How do students communicate within these sorts of learning environments, how do they collaborate on assignments, and how do you ensure that they stay engaged on an assignment? The latter question is particularly relevant for many instructors in higher education.

‘Take a peek around the virtual door’
Admiraal examined this by following students’ behaviour in online learning environments: how often they visited the environment, how active they were, and how their behaviour changed. ‘In general, it turns out that assignments in an online environment need to be a supplement to classroom instruction. Furthermore, you have to really need each other in order to complete the assignment successfully, such as by giving each of the individual participants a piece of information that the team needs to put together like pieces of a puzzle. Tip number 3: work towards a concrete product. And the last tip: make the final product authentic, something that is applicable in the real world.’

In an online environment, it is important for the instructor to observe how things are going from time to time, to make sure that students are still working on the assignments actively. ‘Such as by asking a question on the discussion platform. This allows you to take a peek behind the virtual door.’

Pupils learn best actively if they are given problem-solving tasks in a small group.
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