Active learning strategies are gaining popularity among instructors, and research is demonstrating its utility in classrooms (see Hettler 2015). However, there are also perceived roadblocks and challenges to implementing these types of strategies into a classroom. For example, at many institutions like Michigan State, there are large undergraduate courses that, due to their size, may inhibit some aspects of these strategies, in addition to other logistical, technological, or administrative issues. However, with some creativity, these difficulties can often be overcome with relatively simple, stand-alone methods that can be used to enhance student engagement and learning. In this post, I will discuss active learning generally, its benefits, and how it can be implemented. I also provide examples of active learning strategies, including those from my own practice, to provide encouragement and real ways to incorporate them, with the hope that active learning strategies will seem less daunting.
What is active learning?
When visualizing a “traditional” college classroom, what often comes to mind is a room filled with students being lectured to by an instructor. Although some students have come to expect this type of model, the majority of students prefer (or may come to prefer) opportunities in class to discuss, test, or apply their knowledge. Through the incorporation of active learning strategies, a shift in learning occurs; classrooms shift from instructor-centered environments to student-centered ones, with students now more engaged with the material.
This process can occur in many different ways, and thus, active learning can also take on a variety of forms, some of which may be more feasible in specific teaching environments. According to Bonwell and Eison (1991), who popularized the idea of active learning, there are certain characteristics of active learning, including more involvement and engagement from students, a greater emphasis on skill development, and increased participating in higher orders of thinking (applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating) instead of memorization and recall. Overall, these types of strategies have led to a “better and deeper understanding of the material and the development of learning skills that extend beyond the subject matter at hand and into lifelong learning” (Hettler 2015). Clearly, these strategies are beneficial to students; however, there has still yet to be a complete redesign of college classrooms, mostly due to administrative and logistical roadblocks.
How can active learning be incorporated into traditional classrooms?
Despite these issues, many active learning methodologies can still be applied to many classrooms, whether it be a complete redesign of your course (Team Based Learning or Flipped Classrooms), or the incorporation of singular, stand alone active learning methods.
The Flipped Classroom model is one example of a completely student-centered classroom filled with active learning activities and technologies. However, for many instructors, this type of approach is not feasible, whether it be lack of technology in the classroom, difficulties in “flipping” the material, or large class sizes, to name a few. Due to these challenges, I will further discuss this approach in a subsequent post.
What is probably more beneficial for most instructors are stand-alone methods that still encourage and increase student engagement and success, but do not require a complete redesign of your classroom. There are multiple ways to get students more involved without completely trashing your lecture format:
One simple method is to frame brief lectures (10-15 minutes) by short periods of discussion (3-5 minutes), usually by providing the students with some type of discussion-based question. By breaking up the class, students are able to evaluate their knowledge. Questions can be complex, or could follow a multiple choice format, but they need to be thought-provoking and discussion worthy.
In this method, after a question is posed, students individually work through the problem, then pair with neighboring student(s) to discuss, then these groups share their answer with the class. Discussion can then occur at the classroom level, with multiple groups sharing and discussing their solutions.
By interrupting lecture to ask a question, not only can you determine if you have been effective in teaching, you can also use the opportunity for further discussion, if needed. Technology, such as clickers, are helpful in this measure, as it provides instant feedback, as well as anonymity. If it is clear students know the answer to the question, you may move on to a new idea, while if students appear to be struggling, you may need to revisit that topic or use the opportunity for student discussion.
Problem-Based Learning & Case Studies
Finally, methods of problem-based learning, such as case studies provide a way for students to apply their knowledge to real life situations. With these types of exercises, students engage in more active, as opposed to passive, learning where they can apply their knowledge with the help of others in the class. Not only does this encourage group skills, but it allows students to think about things in ways they may have not otherwise.
What does active learning look like in my practice?
I develop and teach the anatomy portion of a small post-baccalaureate program designed to prepare graduate/medical students for biomedical education and medical school. In this course, I have used (or have attempted to use) active learning strategies by breaking students up into small groups and replacing lecture with group activities and discussions. From this, I have seen dramatic increases in not only engagement during class, but also retention of material as compared to previous years where I only lectured. During the subsequent semester, I provide supplemental instruction to these same students in their medical gross anatomy course and use many of the same strategies, including group work and application of the material through clinical correlates (case studies).
We’d like to know: What types of active learning strategies have you used or do you want to use in your classroom? How have these been effective, or ineffective, in your practice?
Allen, Deborah, and Kimberly Tanner (2005) Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biology Education 4:262-268.
Bonwell, Charles C., and James A. Eison (1991) Active learning: Creative excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports.
Hettler, Paul L. (2015) Active learning in economics: increasing student engagement, excitement and success. International Advances in Economic Research 21(4):357.
Image credit: Lecture Hall/Sholeh/CC 2.0
Nicole Geske is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology specializing in mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology. Her research interests include the modification and use of human remains and reconstructing taphonomic and mortuary events. She is also interested in human anatomy and medical school education, especially in regards to active learning and flipped classroom design.