June 18th, 2012

Students Share Their Thoughts on Active Learning


“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged 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.”
– A. Chickering and Z.F. Gamson, “Seven principles for good practice,” AAHE Bulletin 39 (March 1987), 3-7.

Active learning, a learner-centered approach to teaching in which the responsibility for learning is placed upon the students (often working in collaboration with each other), is not new. Yet there are still many faculty who lecture almost exclusively and are convinced that active learning activities won’t work in their courses.

Some of the most frequently cited concerns about learning activities include that they take up too much class time, make it more difficult to control the class, work only in small classes, take too much time to design, and are difficult to grade.

Supporters of learner-centered teaching may counter those objections by citing a growing volume of research that supports active learning techniques. Or they may just have their students share their perspectives on active learning and what makes a learning activity effective for them.

In the online seminar Active Learning That Works: What Students Think presenter Ken Alford, Ph.D. took the latter approach. Using video clips from about a dozen students from across a variety of disciplines, the associate professor at Brigham Young University allowed students to share their thoughts on active learning—what they like and why they like it. Their comments, summarized here, cover a wide spectrum, including the benefits of learning activities to:

  • Help students build connections with what they’re learning
  • Bring a change of pace to class sessions so students don’t get bored
  • Force students to participate rather than allowing them to just sit back and be spectators
  • Allow students to get to know one another
  • Open the class to different perspectives
  • Make it easier to understand and remember the material

Of course being a learner-centered teacher doesn’t mean you never lecture. Active learning and lecture are not mutually exclusive. They can, and often are, used together in the same class session.

“It’s very easy to overpopulate your class with learning activities,” said Alford. “Learning activities should be the seasoning and not the main course. Look for opportunities in the class; normally they will stand out—key concepts, important transitional lessons, or a summation. View things from a student perspective. When do they really need to internalize a concept? Those kinds of places set themselves up for learning activities.”

View a brief clip from the seminar:

  • Kathryn W. Kemp

    Effective students do not "sit back and be spectators" during lectures, a point that is often overlooked in discussions of active learning. They are "actively learning" while taking notes during lectures: reframing concepts into their own words, questioning, and relating what they are hearing to their existing fund of knowledge. My impression is that some beginners have no idea that this process is even possible, or perhaps they don't know that they how to approach this situation. Furthermore, the disappearance of cursive writing physically impedes the act of note-taking. (Ask your students if they write or print; if "print" is the answer, ask why. I learned some discouraging information when I asked this.) If a student is not performing well, ask to see the notebook. This sometimes opens the way to giving practical advice. Lectures are occasions for mental activity and should not be received passively.

  • Toni Medlen

    If you want more information about HOW to put these ideas into practice I have found "Instructional Intelligence" to be the most useful set of strtagies, tools and tactics. Barrie Bennett is the Canadadian 'guru' who has pulled together evidence-based practice to enhance collaborative learning, classroom management and a common language from which lecturers can use to share ideas and support one another. Google "Instructional Intelligence" for lots of practical ideas!

  • JH

    Kathryn Kemp is right………
    The reality is that ‘you can lead horses to water but you cannot make them drink.’ More intelligent students will perform at a high level regardless of presentation methodology due to higher intrinsic motivation. About 5% or less of students in my classes are graduate school material intellectually and motivationally—-the rest simply want a diploma to frame to make more $$$. I’ve been able to boil it down to two types of students: [1] the student who defines themselves as a ‘carpenter’ simply because they have a ‘framed receipt’ for a set of carpentry tools they have purchased; [2] the student who realizes that one is not defined as a carpenter simply by having a ‘framed receipt’ for a set of carpentry tools— but rather you are defined as a carpenter by what you will BUILD with the tools once you have acquired them. The latter students have higher intellect and greater long-term goals and foresight; the former are of lower intellect, extrinsically motivated, and make short-term emotional decisions, not long-term logical ones.

    You cannot engineer ‘failure’ out of a system—-systems will always have weak spots and the system itself will manifest those weak spots no matter how hard we try to outmaneuver them. Forcing everyone to participate in learning methodologies that we professors know will make students successful will garner a return on our investment that consists of resentment that manifest in bad evaluations. Imagine if there was a university where everyone got an ‘A’ in every class, everyone graduated at the top, and there were no poor performers. That university would come under investigation due to it’s ‘discrepancy with reality’. An individual class would be no different—there must be winners and losers—making everyone a ‘winner’ is not reality due to individual differences; some must win in life, some must take the backseat. I’m not against active learning, I’m against the futile attempts to make every single student successful NOT by their own efforts, but by our one-size-fits-all efforts as teachers—-that’s not realistic. ‘The cream rises to the top’—that saying exists for a reason.