In prehistoric times, people learned by doing -- active learning. Through the years, as people settled down and built communities and education became democratized, people discussed scrolls and manuscripts in classes. Thus began the lecture-based model of learning – and the fall of active learning, according to D. Christopher Brooks, Ph.D., Director of Research at EDUCAUSE.

Now we’ve come full circle, because digital devices naturally lend themselves to a more hands-on approach again.

Brooks and other educators on a panel at EDUCAUSE 2017 this month in Philadelphia, Pa. said this is the year of active learning and shared experiences from their classrooms.

Active Learning – the No. 1 Strategic Tech of 2017

Active learning classrooms (ALCs), e.g. student-centered, technology-rich learning environments, are the top strategic technology in the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research report, Higher Education’s Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2017.  While active learning is still not mainstream, we’ll continue to see it grow over the next few years, Brooks said.

“We’re really on the cusp of seeing these things become more ubiquitous. This is a pretty exciting time,” he said.

ALCs typically feature round tables with moveable seating that allow students to face each other and work in small groups. The tables are often paired with whiteboards for brainstorming and diagramming, and they can be linked to large LCD displays so students can project to the entire class.

Associate Professor Sehoya Cotner teaches a biology class at the University of Minnesota, experimenting with active learning recently with impressive results. She taught one section of her class the traditional lecture-based way and the other through active learning. Every aspect of the class – the syllabus, coursework, assignments, characteristics of the students, bad jokes, etc. – were the same, and when students signed up they didn’t know what model they were getting.

Student ACT scores were higher in the traditional course. Since those are highly predictive of performance, Cotner expected that section to perform better. That’s not what happened.

Instead, the active learning students outperformed the students in the traditional section.

“I thought it would be the worst teaching experience of my life.”

active learning

Cotner’s active learning experience didn’t start out great, though.

“The first semester was agony. I thought it would be the worst teaching experience of my life,” she said of the completely new and foreign way of teacher. “It got awesome really quickly.”

She said the activities in an active learning classroom don’t need to be sophisticated to engage students meaningfully. She uses the Clicker to ask questions and have all students respond, showing results to the entire class. Any activities that involve students working in small groups is great, she said.

She uses whiteboards where students can draw trends and graphs and share them to the entire class on LCD screens.

Her students do science puzzles in their small groups and use M&Ms to test hypothesis about human mate choice and natural selection.

Cotner sees more meaningful student interactions in her active learning classrooms and increased self-efficacy in women and underrepresented minorities.

Perhaps the biggest success of all: Her students are awake. She doesn’t get “huge gaps of sleepers” like she does in a lecture hall.

But: “I feel like a human pinball.”

Teaching in an active learning classroom isn’t easy.

“You’ve got to have some energy,” Cotner said. “I have a step tracker, and I track about 6,000 steps teaching my classes each day. The worst-case scenario is me talking the whole time. The students are sitting at these tables wanting to do stuff. Give them something to do.”

“Given the data we’ve seen it’s really hard to convince myself that my lectures are amazing and that’s how students are learning. I don’t think that’s the case,” she said.

Students are learning best when they are doing, just like those prehistoric times when people learned to harness fire simply by watching people harness fire.

“The more things changed, the more things stayed the same,” Brooks said.

In Brooks’ March EDUCAUSE Review article, “Active Learning Classrooms: The Top Strategic Technology for 2017,” he gives the following advice to determine where ALCs fit into an institution.

  • “Find role models among peer institutions and communities of practice to help you understand how best to introduce and deploy ALCs at your institutions.”
  • “Convene and collaborate with key institutional partners (include the instructors who will teach in ALCs) to shape a collective understanding of the institution’s needs for such learning spaces.”

As we inch closer to 2018, Brooks and Cotner urge educational leaders and faculty to embrace active learning in classrooms where it makes sense. While it may be a little foreign at first, they said, the collaborative environment will quickly become an effective and desired way of learning.

Related reading: Learn Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s secret to flexible learning. The school’s active learning classroom features movable furniture, a wireless podium, side monitors for students to collaborate with and cameras to capture the Mediasite recordings, allowing students or faculty presenting at a distance to participate.

Also, learn how engagement and interactivity features in video technology create immersive learning experiences for active learning classrooms.