In a time where alternate and free means of learning (Khan Academy, Coursera, etc.) are proliferating with exciting fervour, university instructors more so than ever face of the challenge of providing students with meaningful learning opportunities that cannot be accessed elsewhere.
Active learning in the university classroom is one such approach and by no means is it some new pedagogical model. In fact you have almost certainly encountered some form of active/problem-based learning during your university career. The shift from the teacher- to student-centered approach is gaining more attention, in part, due to vast amounts of empirical and anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness in facilitating deep, meaningful learning at the university level. Just look at some of the comments from Sharday’s post, students value being active participants in their learning!
The active learning model asserts that providing multiple opportunities for students to engage with course material in a meaningful way will enhance learning and foster positive interpersonal traits that will drive future learning. Through activities such as small group discussion, in-class problem solving, case studies, debates, critical analysis, etc. students are challenged to exit their role as a passive sponge and become an active participant in their learning experience. In this model, the teacher is more a facilitator of these opportunities than the keeper of knowledge. However! this by no means eliminates the ‘teacher’ from the classroom equation. In fact, this approach requires more from the teacher than delivering a conventional lecture.
I’ve been thinking about active learning a lot as of late, as I am currently preparing to teach a unit of a large first year class (~250 students). If my past teaching experience taught me anything, it’s that building active learning into your lessons is TOUGH!
First, preparing lessons that involve active learning requires a substantial investment of time. In constructing these activities, one must ensure that students have sufficient background knowledge on the topic, that reasonable time parameters have been established for completion of the activity without sacrificing other aspects of the lecture (if being performed during class time), and in a manner that ensures the purpose of the activity satisfies the course or lessons learning objectives.
Designing good activities and appropriate problems is a skill that requires the instructor have a deep understanding of the subject matter, the intended learning outcomes are for the task, and some creativity. What I have especially come to appreciate about designing appropriate activities is that it is an iterative process wherein you are constantly tweaking or changing parts of your approach. It can also be very useful to ask experienced colleagues for advice, thereby learning from their mistakes.
Finally, even if you have conceived a fantastic idea for an activity that is aligned with course learning objectives, you still run the risk that the outcome of the activity will miss the intended mark, so to speak. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. For example, your intention may be for students to use problem-solving skills to work through a case study and as such, you give very loose parameters for how the students must complete the activity. However, in this example a loose structure runs the risk that any number of factors may lead them to the wrong or unintended solution. Again, in this type of situation, learning from another’s mistakes may save you the time and frustration of learning the hard way.
Fortunately, there is long-term benefit from the initial time investment. Given the amount of structural organization required for courses built around active learning, administering the same or a similar course down the road should require considerably less time as you have already developed the blue print.
If you’re curious about what active learning looks like in your area of study, do a quick literature search of “[your field] + active learning”. You’d be surprised at the wealth of knowledge that is available and you’ll more than likely recognize techniques from your time as a student.
Please feel free to comment below with your own tips, tricks, and lessons learned from using active learning strategies in your teaching.