Author: Rosemary Malfi, PhD candidate in Environmental Sciences and Tomorrow’s Professor Today Alumna
This seminar and its follow-up pedagogical workshop were both facilitated by Dr. Susan Shadle, the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Boise State University in Idaho. Susan is a chemist by training and continues to teach chemistry courses at her university. The purpose of this workshop was to expose us to a pedagogical method called Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), an instructional methodology that originated in chemistry departments and that falls under the pedagogical umbrella of the “active learning” paradigm.
POGIL is a student-centered strategy in which students (even in large classroom settings) work in small groups with individual roles assigned to them with the purpose of keeping students actively engaged in the learning process. Although lecturing is not eliminated in a POGIL classroom, it is minimized; instead, students spend the majority of classroom time problem solving with each other (“peer instruction”). This general format is meant to facilitate the development of “process skills” like critical thinking, problem solving, and communication. This is accomplished in the small-group format by assigning and rotating specific roles that each individual must occupy: manager, recorder, spokesperson (presenter), and the strategy analyst (reflector). The last role is optional, depending on whether it is optimal to have groups of 3 or 4. In assuming and interacting with each other in these different roles, students are encouraged to develop different skill sets in addition to problem-solving, including how to listen, to synthesize information rapidly (“information processing”), to communicate that information in both short written form and aloud, and to work collaboratively.
One suggestion regarding the composition of the small groups is to have the groups change every class at the start of the course so that students interact with many different individuals. After the first exam, students are then assigned to groups based on performance in order to promote diversity within a group. Groups can then be changed after certain intervals of time (# weeks, after each exam, etc.) as the instructor sees fit.
POGIL classroom activities can vary in structure, but fall under two broad categories: learning cycle activities and application activities. The former guide the students to develop knowledge of content through a cycle of “exploration, concept invention/term introduction, and application.” The latter facilitate students in deepening or refining their “understanding of one or more previously developed/presented concepts through application of relevant process skills.” In both the short seminar presentation and in the longer workshop, we engaged in some of these activities. Generally, the activities take a worksheet format – students must work through the steps, which are designed and arranged strategically.
Typically, a learning cycle activity will start with a model or diagram that has select information available on it. Students then work through a series of questions that guide them in exploring components of and extracting relevant information from the model/diagram. The next questions then ask students to move beyond identifying aspects of the model to steps that encourage concept (or term) invention. Essentially, students, through their collective exploration of the model/diagram and identification of patterns will form a concept on their own, prior to vocabulary for or relevant to that concept being introduced. The idea behind this is that we often instruct in the opposite direction – we give a term and then define it for our students. In working “backwards,” students arrive at an understanding of the concept before it has a name. The next questions in the exercise are then application/critical thinking questions that ask students to apply the concept they have just learned to another example. These questions can also be more open-ended, asking students to think more broadly by connecting their framework of the central concept to the real world and their own lives (e.g., thinking about examples of things that do and don’t dissolve in water in the “Sweet and Salty” exercise).
Overall, POGIL seems an excellent way to overcome some of the major challenges faced in large classroom environments, the biggest being the disengagement of students from the material. Using this course design makes the classroom feel much smaller; of course, it’s not without costs. Implementing this design is not easy, and activities require continual evaluation to ensure that the exercises are accomplishing student learning goals. Every group of students is also different, so it is important to keep in mind that the pace of the class or the variety of strategies you may need to use will be dynamic. Most of the examples we saw in this workshop were from introductory Chemistry, but this model can clearly be applied to other STEM subjects (and even non-STEM subjects, the facilitator claims!). Certainly it would work for introductory Biology and even more “advanced” or focused classes on concepts like evolution. POGIL resources are plentiful and publicly available, and I look forward to tapping into this well of pedagogical information!
Rosemary Malfi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences and a graduate of the TRC’s TPT program at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation research explores how flowering plant (i.e. food) availability and parasitism affect bumblebee population dynamics. Broadly, her research interests are in population and behavioral ecology, pollination biology, and pollinator conservation.