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Promoting Student Engagement:
Active Learning

Active learning has been around since the time of Socrates. Active learning is basically any activity that involves the student doing more than just passive listening.  Active learning techniques involve having the students read, think, make observations, solve problems and discuss their ideas. Active learning puts the responsibility of learning with the student, and allows for a variety of learning styles to benefit. There are a number of different techniques that can be used to engage the students, including solving problems, team discussions, formulating questions, role playing and case studies. Having the students work on some activity during class time wakes them up, gets them to focus on the key concepts of the lecture and gives them time to practice honing their critical thinking skills during class where they can receive immediate feedback on their progress. Weak students benefit by getting help from academically stronger students, and the strong students learn the material further by explaining it to someone else. When students complete an activity, they learn it better than if they watch the instructor complete it. In addition, by completing an activity, students find out how much else they need to learn to master the particular topic, and are able to focus on the lecture better than if they were just copying down the words.

There is significant evidence that we learn best by doing. Imagine trying to learn to swim without ever getting into the water. You attend a lecture on swimming where you are told the exact mechanics of swimming, how to move your arms and legs, when to breath, how to hold your body and what motions to do for each particular stroke. Although you may learn about swimming you will not learn how to swim until you get into the water.

  • In lecture students are not learning how to practice a skill, nor are they receiving feedback on that skill. 
  • In a typical lecture, students are simply copying down words, watching, sleeping or daydreaming about something else. To really learn to a skill, you need to try it,
  • See what works and what doesn’t work,
  • Think about how to do it differently,
  • Then try it again. 
  • Why not take the small amount of time we have with our students in class and help them develop the skills necessary to solve the problems and make their own conclusions?

Below are some active learning techniques:

Individual Activities

  • “One Minute Paper” – Give the students one minute to reflect on a topic or respond to a question posed. This activity is effective in helping the instructor know how much the students understand a particular topic.  Another useful question is to ask the students to write about what they learned during the class and what they still have questions about. This allows students to focus their thoughts as well as provides the instructor with feedback on what the students do not understand. Collect the papers and select a few to go over the next period.
  • Daily journal – This is just a longer version of the one minute paper. Time could be allotted during class to start the journal entry and continued as part of the homework assignment. The journal allows reflection on a larger topic and could be used as a starting point for a paper. For larger classes, journals could be collected randomly for a small group of students at a time to be checked.
  • Reading quiz – Give the students a short quiz on material they should have read prior to lecture. The quiz can be at the beginning of class (either paper or electronic using PRS system) or can be assigned electronically prior to coming to class. This technique forces the students to prepare for the lecture ahead of time and makes them more likely to be able to participate.
  • Clarification Pauses – Stop for a minute or so after introducing a key topic and ask if there are any questions. Walk around the room and ask individual students if they have any questions that you can then bring to the attention of the class. In large classes students may feel intimidated in asking questions in front of the class. This method gets questions from students who might otherwise not feel comfortable asking. A similar technique is to ask a question and wait for a while before selecting a student to answer. This gives more students the opportunity to answer than just the same few students in the front row. By selecting random students to answer, participation of all students is increased.
  • Quiz/test questions – Ask the students to turn in a question that could be used on a test or quiz. This allows students to think more critically about the material being covered. The questions could be evaluated for significance or gone over in help sessions, or posted as practice problems. Several could be chosen to use on the actual tests.
  • Immediate feedback – A variety of variations of the above activities can be used to provide the students with immediate feedback during lecture. These activities provide “formative assessment” which is the evaluation of the class that allows both the student and the instructor to see the level of understanding of a topic, but is not used as part of the course grade.  A question is posed and all students are asked to answer, either with electronic devices, finger/hand signals or notecards. This tests students’ comprehension and allows the instructor to go back over points that were not understood well.

Group Activities

Many of the above methods can be used with groups or pairs of students. This allows students the opportunity of improve their interpersonal communication skills by allowing them to state their views and discuss the views of other students.

  • Think/pair/share – Students are asked to respond to a question or topic, then pair up and share their ideas with a partner. Students can be polled with CPS independently then asked to convince their neighbor that their answer is correct and repelled.
  • Note sharing – After covering a key topic, stop and ask the students to compare their notes with their neighbors and write down key elements that they may have missed.  This is useful in introductory courses where students may have not yet learned good note taking skills.
  • Peer Evaluation – Students turn in a project (paper or electronically) to their instructor and to a peer. The students then evaluate each other to provide corrections and feedback. This can be coupled with instructor evaluation to lessen the grading load of faculty in large classes.
  • Group Activities – Pose a question or series of questions on a slide or handout and ask the students to get together in groups to work on the problems. The instructor (for large classes, additional assistance may be necessary) can then go around to different groups to answer questions, provide feedback and make sure the group is on task. Students can turn in answers from the group or get immediate feedback by answering CPS questions during group work. The instructor can also pause to regroup the class if it is seen that groups do not understand the material.
  • Jigsaw Group Activities – This is similar to the above except that students are assigned separate parts of the group activity. After the pieces are completed the group gets together and puts it all together for a finished project. The groups refine the project and decide how much emphasis to put on each separate element.
  • Problem Solving - Students can work in pairs or groups on problems or activities and present their answers to the problem on the board. In large classes random groups can be chosen to present their answers to the class. If there is insufficient board space, answers can be collected on transparencies and then projected to the class. The group is asked to present their answer and the instructor can use this to clarify any misconceptions or wrong answers. This is useful as it shows students that others may be having the same problems and allows the instructor to see where students are making errors early in the learning process.
  • Concept Maps - A concept map illustrates connections that exist between terms or concepts covered in course material.  Students work in groups to construct concept maps by connecting individual terms by lines which indicate the relationship between each set of connected terms. Most of the terms in a concept map have multiple connections. Developing a concept map requires the students to identify and organize information and to establish meaningful relationships between the pieces of information.
  • Visual Lists – Students work in groups to prepare lists of key items, for example, pros and cons or a particular issue being discussed.  Again, random groups can be chosen to present the list to the class as a whole. This allows the students time to collect and organize their thoughts on positions
  • Panel Discussions – If students are asked to give presentations, have students work as groups and then receive questions from the rest of the class after the presentation is complete.  This could also be turned into a debate where groups are given alternative positions to defend and the groups present their arguments, followed by wnole class discussions on the topics.
  • Games – This works well with CPS questions. Students could be divided into teams (or sections of a large classroom) and asked a particular question or problem to solve. The first group to get the answer “wins”.

Guidelines and suggestions for Incorporating Active Learning Techniques

  • Vary the activities to keep fresh.
  • Change group assignments or ask students to sit in different spots.
  • Always randomly call on students or use CPS to keep them engaged.
  • Agree on a signal for group work to stop, to get attention.
  • Use questions from class on a test or quiz.
  • Tell the students you will be asking them to do exercises in class and why (research shows we learn best by doing).
  • Give the students time limits for various activities.
  • Be prepared – when will you do the activity, what will you collect, how will the feedback be assessed, what topics are best put into an activity, how long will you give to answer a question.
  • Be prepared to change your plans! With active learning the instructor receives immediate feedback on what the students understand and where they are having problems. Be prepared to regroup and reassign projects as needed. Be prepared to assign new activities if the group as a whole is not engaged (or chatting about something else).
  • Keep fine tuning the process, trying new things, and communicating with others about successful practices.

Giving up Syllabus material

A common argument against using active learning techniques during lecture is that there will then not be enough time to complete all the required material for the course. You don’t really need to shorten the syllabus at all, just modify how the material is presented. In stead of going over every last detail of a chapter and presenting all figures and examples, go over main points and assign some things for homework.

Incorporating Active Learning Techniques with Syllabus Material

  • One way to go about modifying how the material is presented is to write down a list of the most important skills or topics that you want the students to gain from your course.
  • Make sure these topics are covered with some kind of active learning technique so that the students understand the material and have practice working problems or understanding arguments.
  • Give them a brief overview, then assign a group project, regroup and discuss the topic.
  • For topics that are not listed on your “most important list” consider abbreviating how you present it.
    • You might assign the reading and give an electronic quiz on the material and not go over it at all during class.
    • You might spend five minutes instead of 30 minutes highlighting the material and indicating that they need to study the appropriate sections in the text (or in a handout posted electronically).

By reducing the amount of material you write down and say in class, you gain time that can be used in class for active learning strategies. This time can be used to devote to understanding difficult topics and in practicing how to solve problems.  The added benefit is that students gain experience learning how to work together and learn strategies for solving problems without just searching for the “right” answer. By incorporating active learning in your classes, students will learn more (we learn by doing, not by watching and listening), and classes will be more well attended and exciting.

Large Classes

It can be argued that it is even more important to use active learning techniques in a large class than in a small class.  In a typical large lecture class, students feel anonymous and are likely to behave in ways they would not think of doing in a small class where they are more accountable (and where the instructor knows their name).  In a large lecture class students may be talking, sleeping, daydreaming, listening to music, talking on the phone, reading material for another class or doing any number of things that are not associated with the course you are teaching.  If the class is significantly large, it is impossible for the instructor to see or hear that these things are happening in the back two-thirds of the classroom.  Attendance is usually low, again because students do not feel accountable for their attendance (no one will know if they are gone). 

In a small class it is fairly easy to make sure everyone participates because the instructor is able to take role and call on each individual throughout the course of the semester or even at every class.  In a large class you cannot call on everyone nor will you be able to ensure that everyone has participated. In addition few students feel comfortable asking questions or giving comments in front of a large group of students for fear of looking foolish, despite how often you proclaim that there are no foolish questions.

In large classes it is important to pause frequently during activities to either post a CPS question or randomly call on groups to report their results. This gives some level of control in a large class and makes the students accountable for their work. During group activities the noise level in the classroom will certainly be elevated more than a typical lecture.  Thus it is important to establish a signal for the class to stop their discussions and pay attention to the instructor. Either raising your hand, dimming the lights or just putting up a CPS question are some methods that easily get the large class to focus on the instructor after a group session.

References:

  • Bonwell, C.C, and J. A. Eison. 1991. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, 1991) Washington, D.C.: George Washington University Clearinghouse on Higher Education.
  • Bransford,J.D., A.L. Brown, and R.R. Cocking, Eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2000).
  • Clarke, J. 1994. "Pieces of the Puzzle: The Jigsaw Method", in Sharan, ed. Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods.
  • R.M. Felder and R. Brent, "Learning by Doing." Chem. Engr. Education, 37(4), 282­-283 (Fall 2003).
  • Felder, R.M., and R. Brent, “Cooperative Learning in Technical Courses: Procedures, Pitfalls, and Payoffs, ”ERIC Document Reproduction Service, ED 377038 (1994).
  • Frederick, Peter J. 1987. "Student Involvement: Active Learning in Large Classes", in M. Weimer, ed. Teaching Large Classes Well. pp. 45-56.
  • Goodsell, A., M. Maher and V. Tinto. 1992. Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education. University Park: The National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.
  • Johnson, D.W., R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith, Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, 2nd edn., Interaction Book Company, Edina, MN, (1998).
  • Kagan, S. 1992. Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers, Inc.
  • Marcus, Russell. 1998. "Cooperative Learning on the First Day of Class", APA Newsletters, 97:2, Spring. [note: also forthcoming in Teaching Philosophy]
  • Mazur, E. 1996.Conceptests, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.
  • McKeachie, W.J., P.R. Pintrich, Y-G Lin, D.A. Smith, and R. Sharma, Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research Literature, 2nd ed., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI (1990).
  • McKinney, K., and M. Graham-Buxton. 1993. "The Use of Collaborative Learning Groups in the Large Class: Is It Possible?" Teaching Sociology, 21, 403-408.
  • Meyers, C. and T. Jones. 1993. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Morrissey, T. J. 1982. The Five-Minute Entry: A Writing Exercise for Large Classes in All Disciplines. Exercise Exchange, 27, 41-42. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 236 604)
  • New Paradigms for College Teaching, Campbell, D. E.; Smith, K. A. Editors, Interaction Book Co., Edina, MI, 1997
  • Pressley, M.; McCormick, C.B. Cognition, Teaching and Assessment, New York, HarperCollins, 1995.
  • Siebert, E. D.; Caprio, M. W.; Lyda C. M., Ed. 1997. Effective Teaching and Course Management for University and College Teachers, Kendall-Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, Iowa.
  • Silberman, M. 1996. Active Learning, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.
  • Sharan, S., ed. 1994. Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Weimer, M. G., ed. 1987. Teaching Large Classes Well. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Websites on active learning:

http://www.acu.edu/cte/activelearning/
http://www.active-learning-site.com/sum1.htm
http://www.foundationcoalition.org/home/keycomponents
/collaborative_learning.html

http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Cooperative_Learning.html
http://www.calstatela.edu/dept/chem/chem2/Active/
http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/Coopreport.html/

 
 
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Last updated: 06/20/2013
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