June 12th, 2008

The Power of Active Learning


It was the last time slot for sessions at The Teaching Professor Conference in Orlando. The room was full with close to 100 faculty attending a session on active learning. But the conference was winding down and people were tired.

Presenters Deborah Mink and Linda Pickett both from Winthrop University in South Carolina started with an activity: sentences filled with polysyllabic, unfamiliar words that translated into common aphorisms. People chuckled as they worked individually and collectively to figure them out.

Next participants were given a test booklet and told if they opened it, their booklet would be picked up and torn to shreds. It was a faculty audience so not everyone complied. We had 3 minutes to complete the book and were instructed to do so using our non dominant hand. Most of us couldn’t make heads or tails of the strangely worded directions. Then we were instructed to work with those nearby and made considerably more progress. At this point people were laughing, talking and generally enjoying themselves.

Then came the most challenging task. Working in groups we had to create a kind of geodesic dome with 60 bendable straws and scotch tape. Every individual started by creating a hexagon and then we had to figure how to assemble it. People traded ideas, asked questions, registered opinions, demonstrated and barked directions at each other. When all the groups were finished, the variously shaped domes were held aloft with group members clapping, laughing and displaying other forms of camaraderie.

A couple of other activities rounded out the session. After each the presenters guided participants to extrapolate principles relevant to learning, particularly active learning. The lessons weren’t new or particularly profound. It was the demonstration of those principles that made the case.

Faculty are never an easy audience. They’re cerebral, sometimes cynical, questioning, hungry for complicated content and always just a bit aloof. Now maybe faculty who attend a teaching and learning conference aren’t the norm, but I really don’t think they’re all that different. To see a collection strangers so quickly transformed into a community—engaged, involved, talking, teaching and learning in a relaxed and fun way was a testimony to the power of experiences that put the learner at the center of the action, even when those learners are sophisticated faculty members.

In the summary plenary where people shared thoughts about the conference, a participant raised her group’s dome aloft and announced, “I made this with a neat group of people from whom I learned a great deal.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better testimony to the power of active learning.

For information on next year’s Teaching Professor Conference, visit http://www.teachingprofessor.com/conference/index.html.

—Maryellen Weimer