How-to Remain Relevant in Higher Ed with ‘Active Learning’

Active learning…. the topic frequently polarizes faculty. Active learning has attracted strong advocates … looking for alternatives to traditional teaching methods, while skeptical faculty regard active learning as another in a long line of educational fads.(Prince, 2004)

Is active learning a fad? Flipping the classroom, peer teaching and collaborative learning are active learning methods that appear to be ‘in’ right now. Should educators incorporate these active learning methods to keep up and not become irrelevant?  In this post we’ll address these questions – define active learning as it applies to higher education and examine what it ‘looks like’ in face-to-face settings. I’ll also review how educators can stay relevant by incorporating active learning principles into their own teaching without compromising academic integrity. My next post will be specific to online courses; I’ll provide how-to instructions for incorporating active learning activities into the course design.

What is Active Learning?
Active learning is most familiar to educators in K12 environments given that several learning theorists advocated learning through play [Piaget] and collaborative learning [Vygotsky]. It is through these forms of interaction that children develop cognitive and other higher-order thinking skills. However, active learning is not nearly as prevalent in higher education settings; it is the lecture method that dominates.

Yet the lecture method is proving to be problematic in today’s digital culture. It is not uncommon for instructors to cite disengaged students surfing the web, checking Facebook and sending text messages during class. The problem is a nagging one, how can educators engage students and appear relevant without compromising academic rigor?  Bonwell and Eison authors of Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991), describe active learning this way:

When using active learning students are engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialog, debate, writing, and problem solving, as well as higher-order thinking, e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation.

The words, ‘involved’ and ‘problem solving’ are worthy of emphasis; active learning is not busy work, but is purposeful instruction that guides students towards learning outcomes. In recent years, numerous educators have studied and measured the effectiveness of the traditional lecture method. Results consistently show that students retain far fewer course concepts when sitting passively listening than when they are actively engaged in the learning process.

These findings are consistent with Harvard’s Professor Eric Mazur, a pioneer of active learning who developed a method called Peer Instruction. Mazur has conducted his own research since implementing his method in the mid 1990’s, proving that active learning is more effective not only in retention of knowledge, but for developing critical thinking skills.

Active Learning in Higher Ed
Before examining instructional techniques, we need to define the role that lecture plays in active learning. The lecture is not eliminated entirely from active learning, rather the instructor ‘lectures’ for a shorter time, in ‘chunks’, and usually for no more than twenty-minute segments. Anything longer, research finds, student attention drops off dramatically.

I think the answer to this challenge [reaching students] is to rethink the nature of the college course, to consider it as a different kind of animal these days… Students now tap into a course through different media; they may download materials via its website, and even access a faculty member’s research and bio. It’s a different kind of communication between faculty and students.  Eric Mazur as quoted in The Twilight of the Lecture, by Craig Lambert

Peer Instruction Method
Outlined below is an overview of Professor Mazur’s Peer Instruction teaching method:

  • Students complete work prior to the lecture by reading lecture notes and assigned course readings, and then answer questions individually by logging onto the course website to record their answers. This method builds in student accountability.
  • Mazur begins his class with a student question [which he obtains from the course website after reviewing student answers and/or questions] to test comprehension by asking students to think the problem through and commit to an answer. Each student records his or her answer in class by using either their smart phone or laptop. Student responses are compiled and delivered instantaneously. Mazur is then able to see the collective results on his laptop (click here for an example of a class polling tool).
  • If between 30 and 70 percent of the class have the correct answer [Mazur seeks controversy], he moves on to peer instruction. Students find a neighbor with a different answer and make a case for their own response. Each tries to convince the other.
  • After two or three minutes, the students vote again, and typically the percentage of correct answers dramatically improves. Then the cycle repeats.

The Flipped Classroom at Yakima Valley Community College
Two professors at Yakima College re-designed their face-to-face course when they determined students were arriving at class unprepared, appeared disinterested during lectures and were unable to synthesize the course material effectively. The result was a revised course that included a weekly schedule that involved collaborative learning activities. Professors designed the course ensuring that students played an active role, and were responsible for their own learning. Below is an image of the weekly class schedule from the revised course (click image to expand). For more details about the course development phases and how the class schedule works, click here.

How-to Remain Relevant with Active Learning
Incorporating active learning into current instruction begins with revising the instructional plan for a selected course. To begin the planning process start by:

1) Reviewing the expected learning outcomes of a given course.
2) Identifying potential pedagogical methods to achieve the learning outcomes.
3) Selecting the method (learning activity) which is feasible and appropriate for the learner and the learning environment (context).
4) Developing a strategy to implement the method into the class.

I use the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model for course design, and according to this model, one important component of instructional planning is analyzing the instructional options that are available [learning activities] that support the achievement of the course objectives. The next phase involves choosing from the options, an activity that is appropriate for the learner and learning environment. Here is where relevancy comes into play – choosing a learning method that is relevant to the learners’ context [in our case young adults who are engaged with technology] and the learning environment [lecture or classroom setting, or the online environment].

Categories and Types of Active Learning
For those educators planning a revision to the instructional strategy, it will be helpful to identify the type of active learning that will fit in with the course plan. There are three broad categories of active learning listed below. Following the categories are links to websites that provide helpful resources for active teaching activities in higher education settings. In my next post I elaborate further on each type, providing examples of learning activities in the online learning environment.

  1. Individual
  2. Collaboration
  3. Cooperative

Moving Away from the Sage on the Stage, Minnesota State Universities and Colleges
Mid-course Adjustments: Using Small Group Instructional Diagnoses to Improve Teaching and Learning, by Ken White
Active Learning for the College Classroom, Paulson D. & Faust, J.

Closing Thoughts
Active learning is not a fad, but a dynamic alternative to passive learning; learning where students are actively part of the process. Educators today are more important than ever – we are the experts in our chosen areas, the leaders and the role models for our students. It is up to us to ‘reach’ students with relevant and current methods, set the standards high and teach students to be life-long learners. For the next post in this series, Learning Online is not a Spectator Sport: How to Make it Active, click here.


Photo Credit: No Lecture. UC Berkley, jasonjkong’s photostream Flickr, Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “How-to Remain Relevant in Higher Ed with ‘Active Learning’

  1. I personally seem to go along with almost everything that was authored in “How-to Remain Relevant
    in Higher Ed with ‘Active Learning’ | online learning
    insights”. Thanks for pretty much all the facts.Thanks
    for your time,Nigel


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