Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

"Active learning is a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content. Cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and the use of case methods and simulations are some approaches that promote active learning." --University of Michigan

"Students and their learning needs are at the center of active learning. There are any number of teaching strategies that can be employed to actively engage students in the learning process, including group discussions, problem solving, case studies, role plays, journal writing, and structured learning groups. The benefits to using such activities are many. They include improved critical thinking skills, increased retention and transfer of new information, increased motivation, and improved interpersonal skills.

Using active learning does not mean abandoning the lecture format, but it does take class time. Lecturers who use active learning pause frequently during the period–once every fifteen minutes or so–to give students a few minutes to work with the information they're providing. They may ask students to respond to a question, to summarize important concepts in writing, or compare notes with a partner. For some lecture-based classes, using active learning may be a bit more challenging because of class size or room limitations such as fixed seating. Breaking students into groups under these circumstances may not be possible, but other strategies such as individual writing or paired activities are quite possible and lead to good results." --University of Minnesota

How can you incorporate active learning into the classroom?
There are many ways to use active learning in the classroom. This list of activities (PDF) from the University of Michigan summarizes some simple active learning approaches. It also organizes the activities by complexity and classroom time commitment.

Think-Pair-Share: A great way to get more students engaged in the course material during class is to use Think-Pair-Share when you pose a question to the group. The advantages of this approach, and how to do it, are described in this article by Susan Ledlow which also includes sample prompts to the class to help implement the approach. 

Jigsaw Method: One of the strengths of the Jigsaw Method is that students can collaboratively develop understanding of a piece of complex material and then are placed in the position to explain (teach!) that understanding to others. A synthesis assignment is also often part of the whole process.

The Newsprint Dialogue method is described at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis website.

Structured Academic Controversy: Roger and David Johnson are internationally known experts on cooperative learning and the Structured Academic Controversy

Some faculty prefer to use icebreakers for the students to get to know each other and feel more comfortable with the classroom environment. These sites offer suggestions for icebreakers, as well as thoughts on how to improve student engagment during early weeks of the semester.

Ideas for linking first day to last day:

Letter to the future: Dakin Burdick from Endicott College recommends this one. At the beginning of the course, have students think about and list the skills they want to develop or strengthen during your course. You may want to use these during the semester to link your activities and content, if feasible, to student goals. On the last day, hand these lists back to students and discuss whether they’ve been able to reach their goals.
Pre-test, Post-test: If you assess student knowledge (or skills or values) at the beginning of your course, use the same assessment again on the last day. Students will gain awareness of how far they’ve come over the semester, and you can identify areas you might want to address differently next time you teach the course. You can also use this data to document your teaching effectiveness in your year-end report – you need not rely solely on IDEA feedback.

The wrap-up: Ideas for the last day of class

Letters to future students:

Have students each write a letter to a fictional student enrolled in your class next semester. Have them describe what to expect, what they will learn, and how they can get the most out of your class. Have them identify something that they got out of your class they were not expecting, and provide advice and encouragement. Students can discuss their letters in pairs and/or read out loud.

Portfolios: If students have been keeping a portfolio in your course, have them select two pieces of work that demonstrate personal growth over the semester and share with the class. If possible, discuss how the examples relate to your course objectives.
Two most important things: Have them write down (on a piece of paper you can collect) the two most important things they’ve learned in your course, whether a new skill, some new knowledge or how to use a resource. Have each member share at least one thing. I have used this successfully (with classes of 20-25); I also collect the papers and summarize what students get out of the class on my syllabus for the next semester.
Create a ritual for your course: Think about something creative that fits your course content and size – a set of awards, a gratitude exercise, or having students create “toasts” to honor ideas, theories, historical figures, etc., drawn from your course materials and topics.
Modeling life-long learning: Describe for your students what you have learned from them over the semester. It might relate to the success or failure of a new teaching strategy you tried out, or a new angle on the subject matter provided by students’ questions and interests. Explain how you’ll use this new knowledge when you teach the class next semester.
Letter to the future: Dakin Burdick from Endicott College recommends this one. At the beginning of the course, have students think about and list the skills they want to develop or strengthen during your course. You may want to use these during the semester to link your activities and content, if feasible, to student goals. On the last day, hand these lists back to students and discuss whether they’ve been able to reach their goals.
Pre-test, Post-test: If you assess student knowledge (or skills or values) at the beginning of your course, use the same assessment again on the last day. Students will gain awareness of how far they’ve come over the semester, and you can identify areas you might want to address differently next time you teach the course. You can also use this data to document your teaching effectiveness in your year-end report – you need not rely solely on IDEA feedback.