One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it– you have no Certainties until you try.
The past decade has seen an explosion of interest among college faculty in the teaching methods variously grouped under the terms ‘active learning’. I provide below a survey of a wide variety of active learning techniques which can be used to supplement rather than replace lectures. I am not advocating complete abandonment of lecturing. The lecture is a very efficient way to present information but use of the lecture as the only mode of instruction presents problems for both the instructor and the students. There is a large amount of research attesting to the benefits of active learning.
Active Learning is, in short, anything that students do in a classroom other than merely passively listening to an instructor’s lecture. This includes everything from listening practices which help the students to absorb what they hear, to short writing exercises in which students react to lecture material, to complex group exercises in which students apply course material to “real life” situations and/or to new problems. Active learning techniques employ more formally structured groups of student’s assigned complex tasks, such as multiple-step exercises, research projects, or presentations
Active learning is a model of instruction that focuses the responsibility of learning on learners. It was popularized in the 1990s by its appearance on the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) report. They cite literature which indicates that to learn, students must do more than just listen: They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. It relates to the three learning domains referred to as knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA. In particular, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Active learning engages students in two aspects – doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.
Numerous studies have shown that introducing active learning activities (such as simulations, games, contrasting cases, labs,) before, rather than after lectures or readings, results in deeper learning, understanding, and transfer. The degree of instructor guidance students need while being “active” may vary according to the task and its place in a teaching unit. In an active learning environment learners are immersed in experiences within which they are engaged in meaning-making inquiry, action, imagination, invention, interaction, hypothesizing.
Techniques of Active Learning
These exercises are particularly useful in providing the instructor with feedback concerning student understanding and retention of material. Some are especially designed to encourage students’ exploration of their own attitudes and values. Many are designed to increase retention of material presented in lectures and texts.
- The “One Minute Paper” - This is a highly effective technique for checking student progress, both in understanding the material and in reacting to course material. Ask students to take out a blank sheet of paper, pose a question either specific or open-ended, and give them one minute to respond. Some sample questions include: “What is “scientific realism”?”, “What is the activation energy for a chemical reaction?”, “What is the difference between replication and transcription?”, and so on. Another good use of the minute paper is to ask questions like “What was the main point of today’s class material?” This tells you whether or not the students are viewing the material in the way you envisioned
- Reading Quiz - Clearly, this is one way to coerce students to read assigned material! Active learning depends upon students coming to class prepared. The reading quiz can also be used as an effective measure of student comprehension of the readings (so that you may gauge their level of sophistication as readers). Further, by asking the same sorts of questions on several reading quizzes, you will give students guidance as to what to look for when reading assigned text.
- Clarification Pauses - This is a simple technique aimed at fostering “active listening”. Throughout a lecture, particularly after stating an important point or defining a key concept, stop, let it sink in, and then (after waiting a bit!) ask if anyone needs to have it clarified. You can also circulate around the room during these pauses to look at student notes, answer questions, etc. Students who would never ask a question in front of the whole class will ask questions during a clarification pause as you move about the room.
- Response to a demonstration or other teacher centered activity – The students are asked to write a paragraph that begins with: I was surprised that … I learned that … I wonder about … This allows the students to reflect on what they actually got out of the teachers’ presentation. It also helps students realize that the activity was designed for more than just entertainment.
- Active Review Sessions - In the traditional class review session the students ask questions and the instructor answers them. Students spend their time copying down answers rather than thinking about the material. In an active review session the instructor posses’ questions and the students work on them in groups. Then students are asked to show their solutions to the whole group and discuss any differences among solutions proposed.
- Debates – Formal debates provide an efficient structure for class presentations when the subject matter easily divides into opposing views or ‘Pro’/‘Con’ considerations. Students are assigned to debate teams, given a position to defend, and then asked to present arguments in support of their position on the presentation day. The opposing team should be given an opportunity to rebut the argument(s) and, time permitting, the original presenters asked to respond to the rebuttal. This format is particularly useful in developing argumentation skills (in addition to teaching content).
Why is active learning important?
The amount of information retained by students declines substantially after ten Minutes (Thomas,1972). Research comparing lecture versus discussion techniques was summarized in The report Teaching and Learning in the Classroom prepared by the National Center for Research to Improve Post secondary Teaching and Learning (McKeachie, et. al., 1987).
The review Concluded that
- In those experiments involving measures of retention of information after the end of a course, measures of problem solving, thinking, attitude change, or motivation
- For further learning, the results tend to show differences favoring discussion methods over lecture. Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers.
- They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.
What obstacles or barriers prevent faculty from using active learning strategies?
Six commonly mentioned obstacles to using active learning strategies include:
1. You cannot cover as much course content in the time available;
2. Devising active learning strategies takes too much pre-class preparation;
3. Large class sizes prevents implementation of active learning strategies;
4. Most instructors think of themselves as being good lecturers;
5. There is a lack of materials or equipment needed to support active learning approaches;
6. Students resist non-lecture approaches.
How can we overcome these barriers ?
1. Admittedly, the use of active learning strategies reduces the amount of available lecture time that can be devoted to content coverage. Faculty who regularly use active learning strategies typically find other ways to ensure that students learn assigned course content (e.g., using reading and writing assignments, through their classroom examinations, etc.)
2 The amount of pre-class preparation time needed to implement active learning strategies will be greater than that needed to “recycle old lectures;” it will not necessarily take any more time than that needed to create thorough and thoughtful new lectures.
3. Large class size may restrict the use of certain active learning strategies (e.g., it is difficult to involve all students in discussion in groups larger than 40) but certainly not all. For example, large classes can be divided into small groups for discussion activities, writing assignments can be read and critiqued by students instead of the instructor, etc.
4. Most instructors see themselves as good lecturers and therefore see no reason to change. Though lecturing is potentially a useful means of transmitting information, teaching does not equal learning; this can be seen clearly in the painful disparity between what we think we have effectively taught, and what students indicate they have learned on the examination papers that we grade.
5. The lack of materials or equipment needed to support active learning can be a barrier to the use of some active learning strategies but certainly not all. For example, asking students to summarize in writing the material they have read or to form pairs to evaluate statements or assertions does not require any equipment.
6. Students resist non-lecturing approaches because active learning alternatives provide a sharp contrast to the very familiar passive listening role to which they have become accustomed. With explicit instruction in how to actively participate and learn in less-traditional modes, students soon come to favor the new approaches.
The sort of teaching we propose requires that we encourage active learning and that we become knowledgeable about the ways in which our students hear, understand, interpret, and integrate ideas.