What Is? Active Learning Student Process

What is Active Learn Student Process logo

Active Learning is generally defined as an instructional method that engages students in the learning process. And really this can be any instructional method that engages students. Really the main thing is active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and to think about what it is that they’re doing.

About the student learning process and the way that it can typically be seen in a lot of courses is there’s a first exposure to some sort of piece of content and that tends to happen in class. Then there’s all this stuff that happens outside of class. So students will process it, they’ll work on some homework, there might be some assessment or quizzes they’ll do. They might get some feedback on that, but a lot of that other learning pieces tends to happen outside of class. And really what just happens in class is the lecturing part, the exposure to the content, and what Active Learning offers is opportunities to have all of these things happen in real time in the classroom. So they have that first exposure, they have a chance to process that information in the class while they’re with you. You can pose a problem with them that they work with and that’s a chance for you to assess are they getting it. And giving them feedback of, oh you misunderstood this one part let’s, let’s cover this a little bit more. So it really becomes a much more efficient learning process and teaching process because so much is happening within the class time that would have happened outside of class. And that’s not to say that they’re still not things that can be done outside class. There still can be homework. There still can be outside quizzes and those sorts of things. But rather having some balance where you have both in and out of class opportunities for that type of learning process.

So does better engagement actually mean better learning? That’s also a question I often get with faculty I work with. Yes they like my class more, yes they’re more engaged, but does that actually mean, are they actually learning more? And that’s where I lean a lot on the research where there has been a lot of research done in the last 10 to 15 years about active learning that says, yes indeed learning does happen. And I’ll actually step back for a minute here to say, often the research will find that students don’t like Active Learning efforts especially if they’re not used to that type of experience in a classroom. Because you’re asking them to do more and who wants to be asked to do more, especially undergraduate students not necessarily. So it can be a little off-putting for them at first, but they do learn. There are objective measures of learning that show that they are in fact learning more, even if they’re feeling more uncomfortable about what’s happening in the class. So Active Learning has shown a significant increase in course grades, particularly when compared to didactic methods like lecturing. Active Learning positively affects student motivation and motivation is a key learning characteristic that ties to attention and memory consolidation. Which, again, are key elements of learning. Hands-on integrative and collaborative learning experiences do lead to high levels of student achievement and personal development. And students do learn more when they’re taking part in classes that employ active learning strategies, as I was saying before, even when students are feeling like they learn more when they’re being lectured at because they’re kind of passively sitting there, supposedly soaking up like sponges all the information. But what the research I’ve shown is it’s actually better when they’re when they are doing these active learning strategies. And oftentimes what happens, part of why students think they’re not learning more is because really they’re surfacing a lot more things that they don’t know that they didn’t know. And usually that is what tends to happen in the middle of an exam is when they find out, oh I didn’t know this thing I thought I knew or I didn’t even know I needed to know this thing. So rather than having them find out in the middle of an exam it’s better to have these things happen in the classroom space where you have a chance to give them that feedback.

So hopefully, that was a whole lot of information about why do Active Learning, so now I’m going to move into the how to do the active learning. So here’s just a list of just a few of active learning examples there are many more here they’re in order of increasing complexity so there’s some really quick easy things that you can do starting tomorrow if you wanted to in your class. So does it work? Yes, I shared some of the research that shows that it does promote a wider range of learning and can improve student performance. And I say research, but I also see this in practice all the time. I work with faculty all the time, not just in engineering, in other disciplines too and it’s just, it’s very effective to engage with our students in this way. And it makes it for a much more enjoyable teaching experience too because you get to interact with students. You get to have that social that social aspect of it that I think a lot of us missed when everything went remote. Does it always work? No, there are a lot of times where if it’s not designed correctly or implemented in in an ineffective way it’s not going to work. Just like a lecture would. Not all of our lectures land on our students. And so it’s just a matter of making sure you’re planning and aligning it with all the other parts that you’re having students work in your class. What are some things that do make it work? So that careful goal driven planning, thinking about what are your course outcomes in the class, what are the other ways you’re going to be formally assessing your students, and making sure you’re intentional about how you implement Active Learning and ways that align with other parts of your class.

Some Active Learning challenges that are some of the common challenges I see are people plunging into Active Learning with no explanation for students. Especially if it’s something you haven’t been doing in your class, if you suddenly start doing it now this late in the semester it can be really jarring to students. Like you’re asking me to speak up in class? I have to actually do something active in this class? It can be jarring without any sort of explanation, ahead of time, of this is why we’re going to be doing this and this is how it’s going to help you. Expecting all students to eagerly form groups for the first time oftentimes I have found with students who aren’t used to that, you ask them to form groups and they just are deer-in-the-headlights, don’t know what to do. So it can be helpful to to be ready to be very structured about like, all right, this table the four of you, you’re a group and provide some of that structure if you think it’s going to be new for them. Making the activities too trivial can also be very off-putting for students if they don’t see what the purpose of it is or if it’s too easy of a task that isn’t aligned with how difficult a homework problem might be or how the exams might be. So making sure that they match with the complexity of other ways that you’re asking students to do work. And also making the activities too long is also a common challenge because there are still things that you will need to lecture. I’m not gonna, taking Active Learning is not going to take the place of lecturing altogether. There will still be times where you are going to need to convey information. And so you want to make sure you have enough time, that you’re giving students the information they need to then be able to do a particular activity.

And then calling for volunteers after every activity can also be off-putting to students because it just becomes kind of like a chore each time. And they know what your routine is going to be. And so you don’t have to ask for them to respond to every question that you have it could just be that you have them talk about it in groups or you have them think about it independently. Just so that they’ve had a chance to process whatever you’ve said and then you can move on to the next thing. So they don’t have to respond to every question and that kind of falls into this. So falling into a predictable routine, so if your class is becoming identical. Every time of, you lecture five minutes, they do a poll for two minutes, lecture for ten, and then they do a group activity. And you never switch up those activities or never switch up the balance of things it becomes a predictable routine and then students are less. It’s good to kind of keep them on their toes a little bit, keep them engaged. And all of these challenges come from this resource. So just some final considerations reiterating a lot of the points I’ve already talked about. It’s okay to start small. It can be really overwhelming to see that long list of all the things and you want to try them all right away. But it’s okay if you just want to start with just start putting in some think-pair-shares in your activities or just start doing a poll every now and then. It’s okay to start small, see how it works for you, and see and go from there you can iterate from there. Begin early and transparently. Make sure you’re you’re telling students this is a thing you’re going to start doing in your class, and this is why you’re going to do it in your class. How it’s going to help them and use it frequently so that students know that that’s going to be a regular aspect of their course. And give clear instructions too when, especially if you’re doing some of those more complex activities where you’re having them go into groups. Make sure you’re very clear about what is it that they’re expected to do during that time. Or how much time they’re going to be given to do and explaining your reasoning for it. And then afterwards, after you’ve done an Active Learning approach to your class, reflect on how it went, reflect on how it felt to teach. What are some of the things, what were the consequences to doing it? What were the benefits to doing it?


About the Author

Dr. Stephanie Kusano

Dr. Stephanie Kusano, is the assistant director for the Center for Research on Learning & Teaching at the University of Michigan. Her background is in engineering with a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, a Master’s degree in biomedical engineering, and a Doctoral degree in engineering education. Kusano’s research focuses on how students’ learn, particularly outside of the classroom.



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Created2023-08-14 11:19:15Updated2023-08-25 09:15:28
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