Active Learning

Student Participation: Learning About Active Learning

Students stay interested and learn more from class when teachers use many different techniques to involve them in the learning process. These range from very short and simple techniques, like telling a story about the material, to more involved activities like small student work groups doing collaborative learning projects. Because teaching effectively is as much a process as learning effectively, teachers who are new to the classroom situation often find it helpful first to use traditional learning activities that they have modified, and then to experiment with unconventional strategies once they have established a comfortable rapport with their students. As they establish a hierarchy of active learning strategies, teachers also find it useful to document and evaluate the effectiveness of each activity. Asking students to critique activities places teachers in the role of facilitator rather than dictator.

Active learning strategies serve a two-fold purpose: they make the classroom a dynamic, ever changing environment in which students have a voice, and they allow students to view teachers as people who are flexible enough to take risks in the classroom. Remember that your willingness to take risks in the classroom increases the likelihood of your students doing the same.

While all teachers hope their students will be self-motivated, they soon realize that some need more extrinsic motivation than others. Even motivated students occasionally need their teachers to prompt them to complete learning tasks. Active learning strategies serve as useful educational tools only when all students participate all of the time. Even experienced teachers grapple with the problem of ensuring student participation in classroom activities. One way to combat the problem of students who do not involve themselves in classroom activities because they are introverted or uninterested is to state in the course syllabus a policy concerning participation. A concise statement that defines active learning and discusses how the teacher will evaluate the quality and consistency of participation can help students realize that student participation is an important course goal. However, simply stating that students are accountable for participation is not sufficient; teachers need to monitor their system of evaluation constantly and consistently. Most of the students who at first balk at class participation eventually will accept their role as active rather than passive learners.

In the book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, Bonwell and Eison define active learning as that which “involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” They list the following general characteristics of strategies that utilize active learning in the classroom:

  • Students are involved in more than listening.
  • Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing student’s skills.
  • Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation).
  • Students are engaged in activities (e.g., reading, discussing, writing).

Engaging Students

Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987)

Active Learning is defined as any strategy “that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. (*Bonwell, C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: George Washington University, p. 2)

Active Learning includes a range of teaching and learning activities. These strategies, supported by decades of classroom research, may be thought of as a continuum from low risk to high risk for both teachers and students. Such a continuum may include (but not be limited to) strategies such as some of the following:

  • involving students in well structured question and answer sessions in lecture classes
  • individual think and write exercises, such as the pause technique or one minute papers
  • pairing activities such as “think, pair, share”
  • interactive seminars
  • case studies

More complex and higher risk processes might include such activities as:

  • individual and group project based assignments;
  • student involvement in research,
  • internships,
  • practicum experiences,
  • student teaching,
  • clinical preceptor structures

Highest risk processes may include such carefully structured small group based strategies as some of these more familiar ones:

  • collaborative learning
  • cooperative learning
  • team learning
  • problem-based learning

As you can see, there are many names for strategies that apply what we know from the research. Summaries of classroom research have revealed a number of best practices that encourage active student participation in the learning process. For example, collaborative learning encompasses a variety of approaches to education, that may also be referred to as cooperative learning or small group learning. What is more important than the names are that these strategies create an environment that engage students who might not otherwise be engaged in their own learning in meaningful ways. Collaborative learning, then, is one among a wide variety of teaching strategies that each contribute to the total picture of making learning a deeper, more engaging, meaningful, active and effective process.

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