Spacious lecture halls with their ascending rows of fixed seats were designed with a specific focal point in mind: the lecturer. But what happens when the focus turns more to the learner?
Although the phrase active learning came into vogue in the 1980s, proponents of this educational approach stress that its roots are prehistoric. Young learners gained knowledge on things like hunting, gathering, and child-rearing through active engagement.
Though not quite mainstream today, active learning techniques are gaining ground. They can show up in the classroom in lots of ways, including having students simply turn to one another and discuss a topic. The purpose of these techniques is to engage students and encourage their own knowledge construction.
Associate Professor Sehoya Cotner, who teaches biology at the University of Minnesota, uses active learning strategies extensively in her classroom. She and her colleagues have also conducted some illuminating research on the topic.
Although she embraces the benefits of technology in her classroom, Professor Cotner will be the first to suggest that low-tech activities are a great way to ease into active learning. In the following Q&A, she shares basic tips and insights for instructors who’d like to try more active learning techniques in their own classrooms.
Q: Let’s start with a basic question about active learning. Can you give an example of a simple technique that you’re a big fan of?
A: Sure. The number one active learning thing I do in classes, and this works with nearly everybody, is think-pair-share. The way this works is that I just ask students to think about something for a few seconds, obviously something germane to the topic we’re covering. And if I think they’re not taking me seriously, I might just ask them to jot it down. Then, I have students pair up so they have a sounding board for their ideas. Ultimately, I want them to come up with a well-developed response they can share with the class.
For the share part of the activity, you can just call on students. But here’s a caveat to that: Those of you who teach probably already know that you're going to hear from the same students over and over again – that’s if you don't do something to encourage a diversity of voices. I often use an in-house random number generator app to call on groups by number. There are other strategies as well. The main thing is to get different voices heard.
Q: What's a typical active learning class like? Is it longer than a conventional lecture? And how many collaborative tasks do you incorporate into each class?
A: Regarding class duration, at my institution I'm able to choose between 75-minute classes twice a week or 50-minute classes three times a week. I really like the 75-minute option. I feel like I can create a fuller lesson plan, cover a larger trajectory, and get more accomplished.
As far as a typical class, I have thought a lot about this and can give you a pretty thorough breakdown of the structure I prefer. First, I always start the class immediately with some kind of polling, maybe trying to find out if they recall where we were last time or seeing if they recall where we're going this time.
Right after that, I try to present some kind of hook. In my case as a biology instructor, it’s often a natural phenomenon that’s hard to explain and also compelling enough to prompt discussion easily. And I love that because in the first five or 10 minutes of the class, I've checked understanding, set the stage for where we're going, and given them something to chew on that's meaningful and relevant.
I almost always start classes with that structure – the check in, the hook, and the brief discussion. Then, I show an agenda for the day, identifying the topic and what I want them to know at the end of the day.
As we move further into the class, I usually have two to three mini-lectures built in. I try to never lecture for more than 10 minutes at a time. And because I've taught the material long enough, in my lecture I'll often build up to a common misconception or a typical area of confusion. Then I'll immediately say, “Okay, we need to talk about this.” We’ll flesh out the misconception, and then we'll move into an activity that helps undermine it – that could be pair work, going to the whiteboard, or maybe something hands-on.
I’ll repeat that sequence one or two more times and then as we approach the end of class, I'll wrap it up with something for them to think about. Ideally, I try to end it with something thought-provoking, if not actually provocative, to hold them over until the next class.
Q: Students can be resistant to active learning techniques. Do you have strategies for dealing with that?
A: I definitely do. In general, I try to be as transparent as I can about what I'm trying to accomplish with the activity itself. For example, let’s take group work. Students are often skeptical about the benefit of group work. So, at the beginning I spend quite a bit of time doing what I call group hygiene, which involves first conveying to them why we do it. I might ask them what they think a lot of employers value most in employees. They usually know one answer is the ability to work well with other people. So, I say, “Okay, we’re going to work on that.”
I also try to set up activities that demonstrate how the collective intellect can be better than the individual. So, they’ll do quizzes individually, and we'll score it. Then, we'll do a group quiz, and they realize that their grade on the group quiz is better because they've talked to people who have different perspectives and think about things differently.
I also continually show data that support the value of group activities or other active learning techniques. And I show them quotes from former students that talk about how beneficial active learning was for them. I'll even say, “You may not like doing this activity, but here's a paper that shows that students perform better when they do it.” In other words, we’ll explore the activity as a topic itself.
Q: You are obviously a proponent of active learning. But can you talk about challenges you’ve had as you incorporated more active learning approaches into your courses?
A: First, I learned the hard way that it’s best to start small and be strategic about the learning activities you incorporate. Early on, I tried to do way too much, and I tried to do too many things that were sophisticated. I often tell others getting into active learning to just start with the low hanging fruit – things that won't take that much time away from your lesson plans or your lectures. Think-pair-share is a great example (described above). When you start small and simple, I think positive reinforcement will kick in and you'll want to do more.
The other thing that's really hard is giving up content. As you migrate to more activities and less conventional lecturing, you put more things in the hands of students. I'm convinced they're going to learn better, but it means you have to stop talking about certain things, and that can be really difficult. I mean, we've been selected as professors to love certain topics and to want other people to love them as well. So, giving up content is tough. One way you can deal with that is to say, “If you want to learn more, check this out online” or something like that. In other words, you can always direct them to more content so they always have that option.