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, the instructor can now use his/her 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. For one, the instructor has to communicate consistently clear expectations that the classrom 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. Second, 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. Third, 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. 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.

Golden rules for creating an active learning classroom

  1. The in-class learning activies 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.