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Active Learning

Active learning describes a broad category of practices that place students at the center of classroom activities. Students learn best when they are doing something that requires an investment and a commitment of participation, rather than listening to a lecture or watching a video. Being active often means interacting with other learners. Cooperative, Collaborative and Team-Based Learning are some examples of strategies used for Active Learning.

Active Learning in the University Classroom

An “Active Learning” instructional strategy creates an environment that requires students to be more directly and productively engaged while in the classroom. The key to creating this environment is the instructor’s careful design of in-class tasks that ask students to practice applying and using course content in responding to specific cases, problems and situations. These applied actions help make visible student understanding of key course concepts. As a result, instructors can now use their expertise to provide feedback to students when it counts most: while they are in the process of solving real problems, analyzing cases or situations, and making their own judgements and decisions.

To create this kind of classroom environment requires some planning.

  1. The instructor has to communicate consistently clear expectations that the classroom will not merely be used simply for the instructor's lecture, but will be the place where students demonstrate their learning through their own actions. To be successful as a strategy, this needs to start on Day One, and continue throughout the course.

  2. If students are to develop the confidence they need to be challenged in this way, they will need to come prepared. The instructor will therefore need to use strategies and techniques to ensure that students do the preparatory work necessary for their success.

  3. The evaluation of student learning will need to be tied to students’ demonstrated skill in applying course content in new situations, rather than in mere memorization and accurate recall of information recorded from lecture and readings. Expectations for application over mere recall must be clearly communicated, and problem-solving rewarded in the marking scheme, as most students will pursue what counts toward their marks, and discount what does not. 

Be aware: In spite of your stated intentions, many of your students may not fully understand initially what "high level" applications look like, and will continue to believe that the goal of your course is memorization. They may even ask you to lecture more, telling you that this is how they prefer to learn. Be patient and keep challenging them to think and act. Their resistance will fade as they realize that you are helping them learn and improve their thinking.

Key Motivation Factor for Students

The Active Learning classroom is an implicit contract with students: “If you (the student) do the preparatory work before class, I (the instructor) promise to make in-class work meaningful and interesting, so you’ll see the value of what you are learning.” Students will feel the contract has been broken if they prepare for class but then are asked to sit through a lecture that repeats the same material they read beforehand.

  1. The in-class learning activities need structure but should not be canned steps. Students need to act for themselves in using their new knowledge. Asking students to make judgments and decisions is an effective way to exercise the freedom of self-determination, but within a context that you have structured to be relevant.

  2. The in-class activities can and should include a variety of formats: problem-solving, analyses and diagnoses based on situations or data sets, quizzes, and “let’s see what you can do” challenges. These learning activities force students to retrieve, apply, and/or extend the material learned outside of class.

  3. Consistent instructor expectations for student preparedness are essential to make class meetings productive and engaging for students. Students need to demonstrate their preparedness on a regular basis, in the form of online tasks due before class, reading quizzes (online or at the beginning of class), or other assessment activities.

  4. A significant portion of a student’s mark for the course needs to be tied to classroom activities related to applying and using course content.

Creating an Environment for Active Learning

Once you make the decision to engage students and get them to take an active role in the classroom, you will need to give considerable thought to how you stage and manage their interactions with yourself and among other students. This means learning a few tools and techniques that ensure a respectful, supportive, yet intellectually challenging environment.

Human interactions drive the Active Learning Classroom. For the instructor, this means adopting practices that promote student participation and accommodate (or alleviate) the discomfort and uncertainty that comes with authentic engagement. Below is a list of practices published by the Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory of San Francisco State University.

  1. Think - Pair - Share: providing an opportunity for students to first think quietly and then share their ideas with a partner can help students rehearse and build confidence to share with the whole class, increasing participation.

  2. Questions with no single right answer: instead of asking verbal questions with only one possible answer, ask questions with multiple possible answers, and follow up by asking students to justify their answer. 

  3. Time to Write:  an opportunity to write down their ideas on paper helps many students revisit  what they know, formulate questions, and rehearse what they may want to share, increasing participation.

  4. Multiple Hands, Multiple Voices: after you ask a question, say that you’ll wait for at least 5 students to raise their hands before you call on anyone, and then really wait for 5 hands. Promote more participation this way.

  5. Wait Time: pause for 3 to 5 seconds (longer than you think!) after you ask a question before you call on anyone to speak or answer the question yourself. Longer wait times will allow more students thinking time.

  6. Hand Raising: in large group discussions, have students raise their hands. Avoid unstructured speaking situations where a subset of students can dominate. Work to call on all students who haven’t yet spoken.

  7. Popsicle Sticks /Index Cards:  write the name of every student in your class on an individual popsicle stick /index card and put in a cup. When asking a question, pull out 2 - 5 sticks to randomly call on students.

  8. Reporters for Small Groups: assign who will speak on behalf of a small group. Randomly determine this by assigning the reporter as the person who has the longest hair, darkest shirt, upcoming birthday, etc.

  9. Whip: ask a question that has many possible answers and have every student share his/her brief answer.

  10. Don’t Judge Responses: encourage students to honestly share their ideas. Avoid immediately correcting wrong answers or incorrect ideas. Student misconceptions can be addressed at a later point in time.

  11. Use Praise with Caution:  “excellent job” and “great answer” can inadvertently discourage other students from participating if they think they can’t do better than the previous  student’s  response.

  12. Learn Students’ Names:  know your students’ names and use them. Only knowing some students' names can make others feel like they don’t belong. Avoid calling on groups by one person’s name (e.g. Billy’s group).

  13. Vary Active Learning Strategies: hands - on activities, think - pair - shares, jigsaw discussions, group presentations, & case studies provide more points of access for students than teacher-centered lectures.

  14. Collect Assessment Evidence: increase the flow of information from students to the instructor by collecting an index card question or an online reflection every class to gauge student learning, student confusions, and student perspectives on their experiences. Grade for participation only!

  15. Work in Stations /Small Groups: to decrease effective class size and provide more opportunity for interaction and discussion, consider organizing multiple activities as stations that small groups rotate through.

  16. Monitor Student Participation: pay attention to which students are or are not participating. Actively encourage student participation and ask to hear from students you haven’t yet heard from

  17. Culturally Diverse and Relevant Examples: connect the concepts you are teaching to real - world examples that span diverse communities and cultures . Show images of culturally diverse people in your class.

  18. Classroom Community and Norms: explicitly state that students should work together, help each other, share resources, support one another’s learning, and be open to divergent points of view.

  19. Don’t Plan Too Much: Students need TIME to think, do, and talk about what they are learning.  

  20. Be Explicit About Promoting Access and Equity for All Students: Share with students why you use the teaching strategies that you use. Let them know that you want and expect everyone to learn.   

Adapted from 20 TEACHING STRATEGIES THAT STRUCTURE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS AND  PROMOTE  FAIRNESS IN  UNDERGRADUATE  CLASSROOMS. Handout provided by The Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory San Francisco State University:

Wickedly Reliable Formats of Engagement for the Active Learning Classroom

The Active Learning Classroom is driven by students doing their own thinking in situations you have designed, so you (the resident expert) can respond and offer feedback. For many instructors, the hardest challenge is to design the kind of activity that 

1) is engaging and inherently interesting and 

2) demonstrates the targeted thinking, so it becomes visible to the instructor (and to the students, themselves).

A key to creating intrinsically interesting tasks is to require students to make autonomous choices and decisions within a restricted framework, rather than generate free responses to open-ended questions. This is the same technique used by game designers to make game scenarios so exciting and engaging. Restricted autonomous decisions emphasize a student’s own clear commitment to a way of thinking, which implicates them more directly in the challenge. This in turn causes the feedback to be interesting, EVEN IF THE STUDENT HAS NO REAL INTEREST IN THE TOPIC.  By making their own, clear choice, each student has now invested in the challenge, which makes the outcome relevant at a personal level. Now the student is motivated to learn whether the decision was sound or not, which makes additional discussion about the decision and others’ decisions particularly engaging.

Consider these contrasting examples: 

  • Open format: “What is the author of this article trying to say?”

  • Closed format: “Make a decision: Which of the following (3 or 4 statements), in your judgment, is the best summary of what the author of the article intended to say?” 

Tasks that are open-format (make a list; brainstorm reasons; generate a solution; “discuss;” etc.) might have their place at times to generate a large number of ideas, but they can also lead to problems if you are trying to promote focused, analytical discussions in class. One drawback is that the responses to an open-format question can be so far afield as to not be highly useful for a general debrief of student thinking. Another: open-format tasks tend to allow certain kinds of students to dominate the conversation, because they are less timid to generate and share their perspective, even if it is not particularly insightful. It’s too easy for less confident, less assertive or or more reflective students to defer to the “best” (understood as quickest) student’s answer. Closed-format questions tend to level the playing field in a discussion, as students who may be slower to respond can make a quicker choice among options than when they are asked to generate an answer to a vague open-ended question.  Once you add the step of having them reflect on their choice and be prepared to explain it, these students can shine as compared to those who say the first thing that comes to mind.

Consider these decision-making formats to use for constructing student tasks that lead to dynamic discussion:

  • Select the best/most accurate/most comprehensive item from a limited set of options

  • Sort the following statements, items, objects, etc. into categories (use this to help students develop thinking with any taxonomic scheme, stages of a process/procedure, typologies, etc.)

  • Rank the following items according to…(X criteria)

  • T/F: Is the following judgment about X true? Why or why not?

  • A single value (numerical estimate or other scoring). Examine this paragraph. Based on the criteria we use for evaluating expository writing, assign a score from 1 to 10, on how successful it is.

  • Sequencing/organizing stuff (chronological; procedural; logical; narrative). Based on your understanding, arrange the following events in their most likely chronological order.

  • What does not belong? Of all the objects on the table, which is the exception to our definition of igneous rock.

Here are hybrid formats: open but somewhat restricted:

  • Single sentence (Write a summary; definition; claim about X in a single sentence)

  • Limited word task (Read the case and offer your analysis of what has happened in 2 words)

These types of formats work best when students are given the time to reflect on their own to determine an individual answer, then discuss their answer with peers in a small group. The small group discussion gives students the chance to compare their answer with others’ and to consider the best reasons for a particular choice. 

Debriefing Closed-format Discussions

The benefit of these restrictive format tasks is that an instructor’s follow-up question to students, “WHY?” is now clearly focused and deeply analytical. “Why did you score this paragraph a 7 and not a 3?” Why did you choose that rock, and not the others? Why did you put this object in that category, rather than this other category? “Why” when it follows a student’s own, autonomous decision implicates the student directly, making the answer something that matters, because it is personal and immediate to the student’s own thinking.