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: