What is active learning?
When visualizing a “traditional” college classroom, what often comes to mind is a room filled with students being lectured to by an instructor. Although some students have come to expect this type of model, the majority of students prefer (or may come to prefer) opportunities in class to discuss, test, or apply their knowledge. Through the incorporation of active learning strategies, a shift in learning occurs; classrooms shift from instructor-centered environments to student-centered ones, with students now more engaged with the material.
This process can occur in many different ways, and thus, active learning can also take on a variety of forms, some of which may be more feasible in specific teaching environments. According to Bonwell and Eison (1991), who popularized the idea of active learning, there are certain characteristics of active learning, including more involvement and engagement from students, a greater emphasis on skill development, and increased participating in higher orders of thinking (applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating) instead of memorization and recall. Overall, these types of strategies have led to a “better and deeper understanding of the material and the development of learning skills that extend beyond the subject matter at hand and into lifelong learning” (Hettler 2015). Clearly, these strategies are beneficial to students; however, there has still yet to be a complete redesign of college classrooms, mostly due to administrative and logistical roadblocks.
One simple method is to frame brief lectures (10-15 minutes) by short periods of discussion (3-5 minutes), usually by providing the students with some type of discussion-based question. By breaking up the class, students are able to evaluate their knowledge. Questions can be complex, or could follow a multiple-choice format, but they need to be thought-provoking and discussion worthy.
In this method, after a question is posed, students individually work through the problem, then pair with neighboring student(s) to discuss, then these groups share their answer with the class. Discussion can then occur at the classroom level, with multiple groups sharing and discussing their solutions.
By interrupting lecture to ask a question, not only can you determine if you have been effective in teaching, you can also use the opportunity for further discussion, if needed. Technology, such as clickers, are helpful in this measure, as it provides instant feedback, as well as anonymity. If it is clear students know the answer to the question, you may move on to a new idea, while if students appear to be struggling, you may need to revisit that topic or use the opportunity for student discussion.
Problem-Based Learning & Case Studies
Finally, methods of problem-based learning, such as case studies provide a way for students to apply their knowledge to real-life situations. With these types of exercises, students engage in more active, as opposed to passive, learning where they can apply their knowledge with the help of others in the class. Not only does this encourage group skills, but it allows students to think about things in ways they may have not otherwise.
- Allen, Deborah, and Kimberly Tanner (2005) Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biology Education 4:262-268.
- Bonwell, Charles C., and James A. Eison (1991) Active learning: Creative excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports.
- Hettler, Paul L. (2015) Active learning in economics: increasing student engagement, excitement and success. International Advances in Economic Research 21(4):357.