April 3rd, 2009

Concerns about Active Learning


If you read this blog, you probably don’t need to be convinced of the need to regularly engage and involve students actively in learning. But I’m also pretty certain you have colleagues who still lecture almost exclusively and who to varying degree express concerns about active learning. I thought you might find this list of common concerns and responses to them useful.

Active learning only works if you teach small classes—If experience is convincing, there is the accumulating experience of faculty across disciplines who are using active-learning strategies in classes of every size. It doesn’t matter how big the class, students can be invited to chat with a person nearby about a question. Straw poles work well in large classes. They engage students and give the instructor as well as the rest of the class a sense of the class’ opinion or how much support exists for one answer over another.

Lecture is the only way to get through all the material—Active learning and lecture are not mutually exclusively. They can be used together in the same class session. When engaged in active learning, students are still getting through material. Even short breaks that involve students are beneficial. After doing something, students listen more with more focus and productivity.

Discussion goes off track and is hard to manage—Keep the class on track by focusing on the question before starting the discussion. Display it on a PowerPoint; encourage students to write it in their notes. Discuss the question for a designated amount of time, and conclude the discussion by summarizing the key ideas. Discussion facilitation improves when instructors practice using it.

Designing and planning active learning events takes too much time—There’s a wealth of already developed techniques in the literature and among colleagues who regularly use active learning. Once an activity has been adapted for use with particular content, it can be used again. A repertoire of developed activities can accumulate gradually.

Some teachers have a gift for active learning; others are gifted at lecture—Yes, natural ability does play a role. But using active-learning techniques is something that many teachers have learned to do.

This list is a slightly revised version of one I found in this article:

Auster, E. R. and Wylie, K. K. (2006). Creating active learning in the classroom: A systematic approach. Journal of Management Education, 30, April, 333-353.