The Readiness Assurance Process
John S. Peters, Ph.D., College of Charleston, Department of Biology

Have you noticed that relatively few students come to class having read (or put much effort into) an assigned reading?  It is common to think that the reason for this is because students are just lazy or unengaged.  But perhaps our teaching methods are sending a unintended message to students about the importance of coming prepared to class.  Ask yourself...what message do we send to students when we ask them to read something in preparation for a class, and then proceed to lecture about that which they were asked to read?  I suspect that for the student, the message is clear..."Why should I read, if you are going to tell me what I need to know?"  Moreover, our work in fostering PBL and collaborative learning in the classroom found that students on predominately lecture-based and content-driven courses tend to discover reading the textbook as a useful tool to help learning only after they realize that they failed to learn from the lecture in class.  For many students, learning however tended to be memorizing information for a test, which they recognized would quickly be forgotten (Peters and Fifield, in review).  

Another common conception held by faculty is that using class time to do interactive and collaborative learning will simply not allow you to "cover" all of the essential course concepts.  This view is stated succinctly in the quote below from a college science instructor....

Lecture format is simply the one which permits the greatest amount of information to be disseminated in the limited time.  That’s not to say that classroom activities other than lecture aren’t useful, they are.  However, they always result in a reduction in information conveyed…"

The two ideas discussed above are connected by one fundamental and traditional view of teaching that is common in college science - covering a concept is lecturing about it.   This view holds that as long as the instructor clearly explains the material (i.e. gives “good” lectures, tells a compelling “story”, sufficiently covers and clearly organizes the material), and students are paying attention and self-motivated, meaningful learning should happen.  Under this view, motivation, engagement, and independent and self-directed learning are preconditions of learning, rather than that which must be fostered throughout learning.  So when students fail to learn and appear unmotivated and unengaged, it is the result of a conscious choice made by the student.  Moreover, lecture is simply the best way to help students learn given the time constraints of college courses.  

How can we incorporate active and collaborative learning activites in the classroom, and still help students deeply learn the essential concepts of the course?  The answer lies first in reconceptualizing our roles as college science teachers.  This reconceptualization asks that we begin to think of ourselves as facilitators of learning rather than as disseminators of knowledge.  Under this view, motivation, engagement, the social contexts of learning and knowledge construction (observation, questioning, exploring prior conceptions, seeking and elaborating on knowledge, refining conceptions, collaborating) are inextricably bound to learning.  Rather than being prerequisite skills that students must bring to the classroom before learning can happen, they are the very substance of learning.  Therefore the role of the teacher is to design a learning environment that fosters these activities and relationships in the classroom.  This is best done by employing pedagogies which promote self-directed, independent and collaborative discovery, and elaboration on and evaluation of knowledge. 

One simple/practical way to begin to do this in the classroom is through the Readiness Assurance Process.  Larry Michaelson in his insightful article Building Learning Teams: The Key to Harnessing the Power of Small Groups in Higher Education, discusses the theory and practice behind using RAPs (or RATs as I call them) to

  1. encourage students to come prepared, having read the appropriate material for an active learning class.
  2. provide meaningful and formative learning feedback to both the student and the instructor as to what conceptions students developed from the reading/research.
  3. encourage students to actively discuss and make meaning of important concepts
  4. to inform the instructor about what inadequate conceptions students  developed from the reading
  5. tailor or target the class strategies (perhaps a lecture) to that which the students clearly failed to learn. 
In my own experience, this form of "targeted" teaching, centered around the conceptions that students are making during out-of-class reading frees up ample time to use active/inquiry-based (i.e. PBL) in the classroom.

How does the Readiness Assurance Process work in a PBL class?

RAPs (or RATs) are 4-5 question multiple choice quizzes over fundamental concepts from the reading and their application to the PBL problem.  They typically  are not "memorization" question, but rather examine students' ability to understand, synthesize, apply or evaluate knowledge/concepts from the reading.  Good RAT questions will encourage a dialog among students which asks them to examine their understanding and justify their question choice using concepts explored in the reading.  Here is how RATS are given in my class: