Meet ACSL: A low-prep / high-yield strategy that produces results

NOTE: This is a draft of a session proposal I submitted for the SP2023 OLC Innovate Conference. It also is one of the three sessions I’m developing for for a forthcoming January 2023 faculty workshop.

SHORT SUMMARY (50 words): Meet ACSL (Active Slide): A low-prep / high-yield teaching strategy that transforms lectures into engaging encounters with course content. Starting with an acknowledgement of lectures as a still widespread teaching technique, the presentation proposes an innovative, easy-to-implement teaching strategy that streamlines lecture planning, and transforms lectures into active, engaging encounters with course content: ACSL (ACtive SLide) is a low-prep, high-yield strategy with measurable results.

LONG SUMMARY / PROPOSAL VERSION: When in 2014, my department moved to an innovative and beautiful new building on a mid-sized campus (about 40K students), I – along with many of my colleagues – firmly believed that lectures were quickly becoming a thing of the past, and active learning was the future. Having originally graduated from a University where young Copernicus attended his first lectures, almost half a millennium before me, I had a healthy respect for lectures, admitted they had had a great run (not centuries, but millennia, if you go back to Ancient Greece!), and believed that now, we simply knew better. It was time for a change, and if all the research was with us (and it was), who would be against?

We designed our new building with that idea (or was it an ideal?) in mind: active learning classrooms that could accommodate 150+ students each, filled with round tables, deliberately designed to encourage student interaction and teamwork and engaged problem-solving, with high-tech displays and connectivity to match, and over 60 whiteboards to offer a spacious canvas for all these innovative ideas students we going to come up with… And not one traditional lecture-hall in sight.

As the director of academic technology, I was thrilled to work alongside a team of passionate professionals – architects, designers, programmers, engineers – and participate in designing the learning spaces of the future that was beginning to materialize right before my eyes… Then, one day, an instructor I very much respected, and students held in high regard, came up to me, in the middle of our largest active-learning classroom, and asked, somewhat sheepishly: what’s the best spot in this room to lecture from? I was mortified – it was heresy!

Or perhaps it wasn’t.

Now, having spent 10+ years working alongside outstanding, dedicated faculty, and with the benefit of very high-tech well-equipped active learning spaces, I now know that it isn’t quite that simple… Yes, active learning is the preferred approach: students learn better this way. But – as most good things – it comes with a price: if done well, complex, thoughtfully designed learning activities require massive, time-consuming planning and prep; they often need to be treated as “prototypes” and require patient refining over time to fully realize their potential and deliver on their initial promise; and during class, they are often not very efficient, requiring a substantial amount of time to produce modest – if important and memorable – insights. In other words, there is plenty of room for complex, elaborate, engaging learning activities, but it is close to impossible to rely on them entirely, especially at beginning curriculum levels in professional, information-heavy disciplines (health sciences / nursing, engineering, law, and many others), where vast amounts of foundational information need to be thoughtfully memorized and quickly integrated into existing knowledge base.

And for that, lectures are still unmatched: they allow faculty to direct students attention, to show important patterns amidst noisy overload of information, to address misconceptions quickly, and to make complex concepts accessible. Not surprisingly, then, faculty often wonder if there is a better way, a middle ground, somewhere where we can keep the advantages of lectures, and somehow incorporate the benefits of active learning at the same time.

This presentation, based on long-term, practical experience (as a faculty, and director of academic technology who assists faculty in teaching), and building on my own insights and those of faculty I work with, proposes a simple, innovative method for making lectures more active, without at the same time, making teaching prep overwhelming.

I introduce a concept of ACSL (ACtive SLide). ACSL approach consists in developing a lecture and identifying natural breaks in the flow of ideas, and/or places that are particularly complex or at risk of leading to misunderstandings and misconceptions. This approach allows faculty to focus on finding the best way to present the content they know, without the distraction and time commitment to have to design complex activities at the same time.

I know that taking a break / making a pause during a lecture to ask a question, ask students to explain something to one another in pairs/small groups, or using a student-response systems to poll the audience is NOT new; what IS NEW in this approach is separating the identification of appropriate “active breaks” in the flow of the lecture, from actually coming up with specific activities used during these “breaks.” It is this de-coupling of preparation steps that allows faculty maximum flexibility, ability to meet the needs of different audiences, and – in the case of video-recorded / produced lectures – very substantial cost savings during production.

After faculty identify the “points” in the lecture that lend themselves well to interruption (natural breaks in the flow of ideas, or concusion points of a particularly challenging or problematic concept) the active slides (ACSLs) become flexible placeholders for active interaction activities. This approach works well with both, live face-to-face lectures, as well as recorded video-lectures (either via lecture-capture or narrated PPPT-style lectures). It is especially effective when it is used with recorded video lectures: for example, because the active slides are merely “placeholders” for activities whose instructions (or questions) are NOT a part of the recorded video lecture, they can easily be changed / swapped (to replace activities that didn’t work well, to accommodate different time demands, or groups of students with different needs), without the need to re-record the whole lecture, or resorting to complex video editing to accommodate changes. This lowers the production costs significantly (especially in programs that need to caption/transcript all lectures), and adds a lot of flexibility for instructors.

The second component of this approach (in addition to identifying and placing ACSLs), is availability of a short catalog of several activity “templates” (meaning plug-and-play processes) that can be used at each “active slide” point. All activity templates included in this short catalog are based on solid educational research (provided as a reference), with real-world results that have been successfully replicated many times, and produce measurable positive student outcomes (significant effect sizes, not merely student satisfaction indices, although it is important too). The activity templates I discuss and include range from the very simple (“brain drain” aka “brain dump,” or “muddy point”), to classic (a brief multiple-choice mini-quiz check), to fairly elaborate, structured activities more appropriate for a post-lecture review (the final, last ACSL of the lecture). In each case, the catalog description of each activity “template” clearly indicates the extent of advance prep needed, the time commitment required on part of the instructor for real-time classroom implementation (how much class time will it take?), time for grading or feedback (if needed – not all activities require it), and applicability/feasibility depending on class size (number of students – what may work well in a lecture with 50 student may not work in a lecture with 350). Specific real-world examples are discussed, and a sample mini-video-lecture (under 10 mins) with full implementation of this method will be available to session attendees on this page at the time of the presentation.