Active Learning Techniques: November 2021 Bulletin

Resources to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Clark University

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is a pedagogical approach that focuses not only on what students are learning, but on how they learn. Research has shown that the transmission of understanding is not achievable by simply telling students what they need to know (Cambridge Assessment, 2021). Thus, in an active learning environment, instead of passively receiving information from the instructor, students are encouraged to build in-depth knowledge and understanding in response to opportunities provided to them (Cambridge Assessment, 2021). Active learning requires that students write, talk, present, collaborate, problem-solve, and reflect.

Why Use Active Learning Techniques in the Classroom?

The concept of active learning stems from the theory of constructivism. This theory emphasizes that learners build their own knowledge and understanding through social interaction and by connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge(Bransford et al., 1999). There are many benefits of using active learning techniques in the classroom, including enhanced critical thinking abilities; information retention; application of knowledge to new contexts; increased motivation; and improved interpersonal skills. Active learning fosters a level of deep understanding that empowers students.

Studies show a correlation between active learning and student’s emotional health (Owens, Sadler, Barlow, & Smith-Walters, 2017); active learning techniques help drive student motivation which then moderates attention and memory consolidation (Cavenagh, 2016). Active learning techniques positively contribute towards students’ emotional health in many ways such as increased interest, creativity, motivation to prepare, as well as appreciation for learning (Owens, Sadler, Barlow, & Smith-Walters, 2017). Data gathered from 1600+ colleges and universities by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) show that hands-on, integrative, and collaborative active learning experiences lead to high levels of student achievement and growth (Kuh, O’Donnell, and Schneider, 2017).

How to Incorporate Active Learning Techniques into your Classroom?

The following are some active learning techniques that can be used in seminars as well as in large, lecture style classes (Retrieved from University of Michigan):

  • Clarification Pauses: While giving a lecture, particularly after communicating a key concept, take a pause and allow students time to think about the presented information. This grants students time to organize their thoughts and clarify any confusions through questions if needed. In general, it is recommended to pause for two minutes every 12-18 minutes during a lecture.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Have students work on a problem that requires higher order thinking. Students then compare their responses with a partner and synthesize a joint solution to share with the entire class. This approach helps students articulate newly formed mental connections.
  • Peer Instruction with ConcepTests: This technique makes use of personal response devices such as clickers to pose a concept-based question. Students will then answer to the best of their understanding before turning to their neighbor to discuss. Give students the chance to change their answers after discussion. Revealing the student responses in the form of a graph would act as a stimulus for class discussion. This approach can be facilitated with tools such as Poll Everywhere, TopHat, and TurningPoint.
  • Minute Paper: At an appropriate point in the lecture, ask the students to take out a blank sheet of paper and pose a thought-provoking question that related to the information previously presented to them. Ask the students to write their thoughts for one minute. You can further encourage engagement by asking student to share their responses.
  • Cooperative Groups: Pose a question for each group, allow time for a group discussion while you circulate around the room instigating engagement. Once done, ask each group to share their discussion points with the rest of the class and provide feedback.

*Read about other active learning techniques here.

Why does Active Learning Work?

When it comes to learning a new concept or skill, instruction is essential but practice makes perfect. Traditionally, lectures teach students new concepts, but active learning helps students master them. An active learning environment instills a culture of consistent interaction between the instructor and their students. This permits frequent instructor feedback. Students also learn through collaboration and interaction with peers, engaging at a deeper level with the course content. Such practices makes teaching more inclusive and foster personalized  learning experiences.

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