Creating An Active Learning Environment in College Classrooms

College enrollment for the 2018 fall academic term in the United States is expected to hit more than 20 million students according to a report from Statista. The rapid enrollment growth is putting a burden directly on professors to innovate in overcrowded lecture halls and meet the needs of Gen Z students.

These overcrowded lectures, where devices can be as much of a distraction as they are a tool, are a challenging setting to engage students. But students who don’t actively engage often lose interest in material and become less willing to apply themselves on assignments and exams. These students are also less likely to have a positive perception of their learning experience, which can be reflected in semester evaluations.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple addition or change in class structure that will empower students and encourage them to participate. However, one popular method professors in top colleges and universities are successfully incorporating is active learning. In fact, many different active learning techniques can be tailored to fit any classroom and can lead to increased engagement and a better understanding of class materials.

What is Active Learning

The term “active learning” was coined by authors Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. They define active learning as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. An active learning environment differs from a traditional lecture setting by requiring students to engage in meaningful activities and to critically think about new information. The goal of the activities is to promote a higher-order of thinking such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that active learning isn’t just asking students to stand up or talk to a neighbor.  While technology such as clickers can be used to create a more active classroom, using them to reinforce facts is often not considered active learning because it only requires a student to memorize information. This “activity” promotes remembering and understanding but doesn’t drive benefits of active learning, like helping students evaluate why the information is correct or apply the information to their lives.

Benefits of Active Learning

Traditional classroom settings expect students to listen and absorb information, but students learn best when they actively participate. Participation helps students take ownership of their learning, whether it’s through class discussion, group work, technology or even passing a microphone around the classroom. As mentioned in an article from Stanford University, when students have the opportunity to decide what they are learning, they’ll take more responsibility for their performance and find the course more valuable. Dr. Kathleen West, a psychology instructor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and a proponent of active learning, made an observation in her psychology course that students are more inclined to want to learn and participate when they see how the information impacts their lives.  Dr. West and many other professors shared unique ways to add active learning techniques and the positive impact these techniques brought to their classroom.

5 Active Learning Techniques

Building an active learning environment doesn’t mean completely changing the pedagogy of a classroom. Active learning can be achieved by incorporating simple, interactive techniques, either inside or outside of the classroom. Here are five simple active learning techniques shared by professors that are easy to implement and can lead to a more engaged and curious classroom.

Debates: Debates are great for developing critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. Present competing viewpoints during lecture and assign students to defend one or both of the viewpoints in a written exercise or a live classroom debate. Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter, an assistant professor at the Michigan State University, finds that incorporating debates in his psychology course has helped students effectively communicate with peers who have a difference of opinion.

Small-Group Work: Dr. Stacey Combes from the University of California, Davis finds her students learn best by presenting and explaining material to their peers. She encourages her students to do this through conversations, games and activities in small groups. A few popular activities Dr. Combes uses include an innovative round of rock-paper-scissors to help students make predictions about fighting strategies in game theory models and an experiment with different sized piles of candy to teach optimal foraging models. Professors can also try incorporating breakout teaching sessions where students prepare mini-lessons for a small group of peers.

Discussions: Discussions not only break up lectures and help students understand information, they also improve students’ communication skills. Hosting discussions in-class may be difficult in large classrooms, so try implementing an online discussion board where students can discuss class concepts on their own time. Dr. West not only requires her students to participate in online discussions, but she brings student questions from the discussion board into the classroom to spark in-class conversation and to make her large lecture courses feel more connected.

Think-Pair-Share: This collaborative learning strategy starts with students individually analyzing a problem. They then pair up and discuss their analysis with partners or small groups so students can share and learn to defend their opinions. Lastly, the pair or small group shares their findings with the entire class so students can hear a variety of viewpoints and ideas. Indiana University Bloomington professor Dr. Gary Sailes gamifies his think-pair-share activity by having his TAs run around with microphones so students can share their groups’ learnings with the whole class.

EdTech Tools: There are a number of EdTech tools available for professors that focus on building skills such as critical thinking and application. One tool, Packback Questions, is an online discussion forum that uses artificial intelligence to help professors provide scalable feedback and uses gamification to motivate students throughout the term. Many professors also incorporate technology that allows students to provide electronic responses to questions in real time, such as clickers or Tophat. Binghamton University professor Dr. Mark Reisinger uses various EdTech tools in a single course. He uses Tophat to reinforce basic information during class, and Packback for students to critically think about the information and apply it to their lives.

While using these techniques to build an active learning environment is great for building student engagement, they aren’t the only activities professors have found successful. Interested in learning more about how professors are engaging their students by creating an active learning environment? Read Dr. Stacey Combes’s story on using online discussions at the University of California, Davis to engage students in her large Animal Behavior course.  

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