Reflections on Teaching

Teaching Without Actively Learn: A Missed Opportunity

Dr. Deep Sran
January 13, 2016

My students read almost every text for class in Actively Learn. This ranges from short news articles about efforts to end the Syrian civil war, to book and movie reviews, to lengthy nonfiction biographies and other nonfiction titles in history, political science, and economics.

This semester, however, for the first time in years, I'm teaching two books on paper. In my high school class, I have done this out of necessity because I am teaching a book that is not available electronically, and in my middle school class I wanted to compare their earlier work in Actively Learn to their work with paper.

Teaching paper books again reminded me how much I relied on Actively Learn to make reading for class more educational and valuable for my students. This semester, all of my old questions and concerns about student reading returned:

  • Did my students read the entire assignment?
  • If they did, were they able to identify the most important terms and passages? If not, I know the reading assignment was a waste, and they are likely to begin the class discouraged and anxious. And this will only get worse over time.
  • Is there any chance they looked up the terms or concepts that were unfamiliar? How would I know?
  • As for the discussion of the assigned reading in class, how do I get the most out of today's class, not knowing what my students did or know? Answer: I write up notes for the class and walk them through the book in class. But, because I gave these notes out in class as we discussed the reading, they did not help students while they were actually reading. Even if I had handed them out before, I would not know if my students had used them while they were reading, so we’re all back in the same place.
  • What will happen to the notes I wrote once class is done? Many students will misplace them or forget them.

These are some of the questions that moved me and my friend Jay Goyal to found Actively Learn and to create a reading platform to help students learn more in every subject. It exists because I couldn’t help my students when they read for class, and I needed a solution that did not exist.

What I did not realize before we created Actively Learn, and before I finally had a chance to use it in my classes three years ago, is that there were other questions I should have been asking about student reading but had not even imagined in a world of paper books:

  • How much more can I reveal to my students about the text with embedded notes and questions, where I can also add images, videos, and links to other resources?
  • How will student learning change when they can see their peers’ responses to questions in the text, to check immediately for understanding?
  • How will students’ experience of reading improve when they can ask each other questions in the text and begin the discussion even before class begins?
  • How much more timely and transparent can my feedback about their work in the text be?
  • How much time can I save by not having to manage paper assignments?
  • How will my own assessment practices improve when I can use standards-based grading and grade student work anonymously and more efficiently in the text?

When I think about all I wanted to do, and all that I did not even know was possible, and I discover again the change Actively Learn brings everyday to my students' reading experience and learning, and to my preparation, assessment, understanding, and intervention, I cannot imagine teaching without it.

I know that with Actively Learn students will learn more everyday, and--more profoundly--their understanding of the purpose of school and their experience of the power of learning will change too, because what was once pointless now has meaning, and this will be visible in every class and on every day they read in Actively Learn. Of course, this requires that I--their teacher--do the minimal work to make this possible, but that’s true with or without Actively Learn.

After more than three years of teaching with Actively Learn, I see how much my students and I miss when they read on paper.

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