active learning in the classroom

Active Learning: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology

In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that require students not only to do something, but also to think about what they have done. Moreover, many faculty have already incorporated into their teaching activities associated with active learning, such as interactive lectures, collaborative learning groups, and discussion-related writing tasks.

However, faculty may not be aware that, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the meaning of active learning is slightly different. According to cognitive psychology, active learning involves the development of cognition, which is achieved by acquiring "organized knowledge structures" and "strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems." (This particular definition is from a cognitive psychology text edited by Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School.) Additionally, active learning entails a process of interpretation, whereby new knowledge is related to prior knowledge and stored in a manner that emphasizes the elaborated meaning of these relationships.

Faculty interested in promoting this cognitively oriented understanding of active learning can do so by familiarizing their students with such cognitive active learning strategies as activating prior knowledge, chunking, and practicing metacognitive awareness.

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active learning in large classes

Quick In-Class Learning Activities to Build Student Engagement

The following are a few quick, easy, simple ways to engage students mentally, emotionally, or physically that do not require much planning and that you can do in almost any large class lecture. List them here and put this up in your office where you can see it to remind you to rotate these into your lectures.

  1. Think, pair, share (“Think about this, get with your neighbor, and share your thoughts…”)
  2. Concept expert (“One of you is responsible for reading [this], one for [that], and then get together and share/compare what you’ve learned”)
  3. Compare notes with your neighbor for clarity

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Students collaborating in class.

Understanding Student Resistance to Active Learning

Fear of student resistance prevents many college teachers from adopting active learning strategies. That’s unfortunate, because these strategies have been shown to significantly increase student learning, improve retention in academic programs, and provide especially strong benefits to traditionally underrepresented student groups. Addressing two key questions may reduce instructors’ fears and increase the adoption of active learning strategies:

  1. Are instructors’ fears of student resistance to active learning well-founded?
  2. Are there effective ways to minimize that resistance?

What is student resistance and is it widespread?
From a practical standpoint, student resistance can be defined as any observable student behavior that makes an instructor less likely to use an instructional strategy. Resistance-related behaviors include passively refusing to participate in an activity, actively complaining or disrupting groups during an activity, or giving low course evaluations to the instructors who use active learning. Some authors define resistance as an affective outcome, describing it in terms of student motivation or whether students like or value the activity. But while student attitudes drive their behaviors, it’s the behaviors that faculty see. It might therefore be more accurate to think of student attitudes as a mediator of resistant behavior.

How much do students actually resist active learning strategies in practice? As with most interesting questions, the answer begins with “It depends.” How much students resist active learning sometimes depends on the type of active learning used. Active learning is not a single technique but an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of instructional practices. Some of those practices, such as “minute papers,” in which the instructor asks students to take a minute and anonymously write down the most confusing point from that day’s lecture, aren’t likely to generate much student resistance. On the other hand, active learning approaches like problem-based learning that significantly increase expectations for student ownership of their learning generate more resistance (Woods, 1994).

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Teaching large classes.

A Quiz That Promotes Discussion and Active Learning in Large Classes

Educational research is full of studies that show today’s students learn more in an active-learning environment than in a traditional lecture. And as more teachers move toward introductory classes that feature active-learning environments, test performance is improving, as is interest in these classes. The challenge for teachers is finding and developing those effective active-learning strategies. Here’s a take-home quiz activity that I’ve adapted and am using to get students interested in my course content.

I teach a large, non-major chemistry course. I try to include topics such as pollution sources, alternative fuels, nutrition videos, and hometown water supplies that are relevant to students in different majors. I give a five-question quiz assignment several days before the topic comes up in class and then use it to facilitate class discussion. I want students thinking and applying course content. The first thing I ask for is a link to a recent article or video of interest to the student within the designated topic area (e.g., Find a recent article that describes an alternative energy source). Question two asks for a general understanding or definition (e.g., Is this energy source renewable or nonrenewable? Explain.). Next are questions that encourage students to interpret what they’ve read and assess its reliability (e.g., How does this energy source compare to oil and coal? Or how will this energy source help meet our current and future energy needs?). The quiz wraps up with a question that asks for the student’s opinion on the topic (e.g., Burning garbage to produce electricity is an alternative fuel—would you be happy to see your town adopt this method? Explain.).

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How Can I Align Technology with My Pedagogical Goals? [Transcript]

Many educators have an uneasy alliance with technology. They may be unsure about its value in accomplishing learning goals or how it can enhance the teaching experience. Because technologies are not necessarily designed with the classroom in mind, educators who want to avail themselves of these tools are often challenged on how to integrate them into the course curriculum.

In How Can I Align Technology with My Pedagogical Goals?, Dr. Dave Yearwood, professor at the University of North Dakota, outlines many of the ways that educators can use selected technology tools to drive student performance and engagement.

This transcript will help you:

  • Assess your pedagogical and technological assets and deficiencies
  • Use the results of the assessment to state how you could better support student learning through e-pedagogical practices
  • Use a multimedia approach that emphasizes audio, visual, and experiential learning
  • Adapt—rather than adopt—selected technologies to accomplish learning goals

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learning assessment techniques

Three Learning Assessment Techniques to Gauge Student Learning

A learning assessment technique (LAT) is a three-part integrated structure that helps teachers to first identify significant learning goals, then to implement effectively the kinds of learning activities that help achieve those goals, and finally—and perhaps most importantly—to analyze and report
on the learning outcomes that have been achieved from those learning activities.

LATs are correlated to Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, such that there are about 6–10 techniques for each of the learning dimensions, including techniques to help students learn the foundational knowledge of the subject and help students apply that foundational knowledge to real situations so that it becomes useful and much more meaningful to them.

There are techniques that help students integrate ideas—different realms of knowledge—so that the learning is more powerful. There are techniques to help students recognize the personal and social implications of what they are learning, which is what Dee Fink calls the human dimension. There are techniques to help students care about what they are learning so that they’re willing to put the effort into what they need to learn. And finally, there are techniques to help students become better and more self-directing learners (learning how to learn).

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23 Practical Strategies to Help New Teachers Thrive

“If you know the content, you can teach.”

How many of us have heard this sentiment before? How many of us believe it ourselves?

It is easy to assume that a content expert is automatically qualified to teach a course on his or her area of expertise. Much of the graduate-level preparation for entering university teaching is based on this assumption; graduate students study their subject areas, but little discussion is had about how to teach and what methods might be most effective. This is regrettable, because while content is important, the content needs to have solid pedagogy behind it in order to be effective in the classroom. Content can fall flat if all the instructor is doing is sharing the information in didactic fashion.

The concept extends to become a belief that good teachers don’t need to practice. This belief is also false, as many faculty development experts know; faculty development usually means remediation, whether one is dealing with experienced administrators or new faculty.

Higher education supports this myth; if an instructor gets good ratings and is considered a “good teacher,” then no one recommends that he or she work with a faculty developer. However, few instructors can say that they have had an entire class period go perfectly, let alone an entire course.

The reality is, there are ways to improve a class in both large and small ways every day. What works well one semester may not work well the next time the course is taught. There is always more to learn and there are always better ways to serve students.

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The Flipped Classroom: Strategies to Overcome Student Resistance and Increase Student Engagement [Transcript]

The flipped classroom model encourages students to complete preliminary work prior to class so they are prepared to engage in higher-level learning experiences during class. But what happens when students don’t do the preclass work and aren’t prepared to participate?

This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the flipped classroom model, and you may consider abandoning the approach completely. But there are strategies you can use to address these challenges and increase students’ motivation to come to class prepared and ready to engage.

Dr. Barbi Honeycutt, founder of FLIP It Consulting and an expert on the flipped classroom, provides strategies you can use to create a successful flipped learning experience for you and your students.

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Learning the Lessons of Silence

“The lessons of silence.” I found these four words in Lao Zi’s book, the Tao Te Ching. I have been ruminating over them lately. In our modern society, more and more individuals fear stillness. In our classrooms, fewer students appreciate the sound of silence. Their faces light up when I give animated lesson presentations but wilt whenever I ask them to pause and think about the ideas we have just considered. Outside my classroom, I seldom see them minus headphones, earbuds, or cell phones. They (and some of the rest of us) have yet to learn that the most profound ideas are born in moments of silence.

In my teaching, it is in the moment of silence where I come to understand whether students are learning or not. It is when the whole class stares at me in silence that I realize I need to rephrase my question. It is when a student pauses while reciting that I see some concepts I’ve taught are not yet clear. It is when a student does not say anything but smiles sweetly that I know my ideas made an impression. It is in the silence of my classroom after the last student has left when I reflect on my own teaching that I better understand how to impact their learning. It is in the silence of my office after typing the last sentence in my manuscript that I learn to think deeply about what I have just written. There is an analogy that perfectly captures all of this for me: it is the silence that follows the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Those notes are meaningless unless one appreciates the sound of silence that surrounds them.

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Actively Learning to Teach

Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.

With active learning, we often discuss the culture shock that students feel. No longer is it sufficient for students to sit listening as passive consumers of information doled out by their instructor. An active learning class compels students to become actively engaged in applying the material and uncovering the consequences of their newly learned knowledge. But for those of us instructors who never had active learning modeled for us as students, the experience can be just as alien. It can be invigorating, as it was today when my students were working hard to understand the biochemical logic of the reactions. But for me, it also felt like was I wasn’t doing my job. I was reminded of those comments on my end-of-term course evaluations: “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!”

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