Integrating active learning techniques into the college classroom doesn’t require a complete redesign of the course curriculum. Quite the opposite. In most cases, it simply means structuring the material so students actively participate in the class through interactive and collaborative exercises — exercises that stimulate higher-level thinking.
The role of the instructor, meanwhile, becomes that of a guide: aiding students on their learning path, not merely dispensing facts. Essentially, the instructor teaches the students how to learn, so they take ownership of their own learning.
More reading: How to Manage Objections to Student-Centered Learning
Active learning isn’t necessarily the same as hands-on learning (though for some technical courses it might be required). Instead, active learning exercises ignite students’ critical thinking skills by pushing them to reflect on what they are learning. Rather than being passive recipients of instruction, students connect ideas, develop their own perspective on the subject matter, and express their views either through writing or discussions.
These activities can take place inside the classroom or with elearning. Whatever the setting, instructors apply active learning techniques through practical, easily implemented exercises within their course design.
Practical active learning techniques (during and after lectures)
In a blog post on The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jason Farman, assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, writes that “lectures are not the enemy of active learning.” Farman argues for more active lecture formats, during which students respond to the lecture and ask questions via tools such as Twitter.
Since students typically bring their mobile devices to the lecture hall, Farman says it’s better to have them use this technology to engage in the course material than log on to Facebook for a quick distraction. “Getting students to take their most intimate technologies and completely reimagine the possible uses,” he says, “can be a truly transformative experience.”
Having students react via social media is one particularly modern way to make a lecture more active and interactive. However, instructors can implement plenty of other techniques to promote active learning during or after the lecture. Consider these methods shared by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching:
- Pause. The instructor pauses regularly to ask students to discuss the material with each other. This ensures they are actively listening to the lecture and clarifies their understanding of the subject matter.
- Minute papers. Instructors ask students a question based on the lecture material or have them write down what they consider the main point. Students have only a minute or two to write their answer. At the next class, instructors (or students) provide feedback on the points raised. This activity serves a dual purpose: Students reflect and analyze the material while it’s fresh in their minds, while instructors receive insight into areas where students may need more instruction or clarification.
- Concept mapping. Students identify the main concepts of the lecture and, in groups, brainstorm connections between the concepts by placing them in circles drawn on a whiteboard. They then link related ideas with arrows and explain the relationships with short phrases. Concept mapping improves comprehension and enables students to connect multiple ideas.
- Case studies. The instructor presents students with a “real life” problem. Gathering in groups, students conceive creative solutions applying the knowledge they learned during the lecture. This activity exhibits all the principles of active learning: critical thinking, creativity in problem solving, application of classroom knowledge to real-life situations, and articulating their conclusions to the entire class.
All these active learning exercises share common characteristics. Each pushes students beyond a basic understanding of material to a critical assessment of the concepts presented in lectures. Rather than only taking notes, students think analytically about ideas and concepts, making connections, and refining their own viewpoints through writing and discussions.
Taking active learning online
Many active learning practices transfer successfully to digital platforms, allowing students to interact with course material anytime and anywhere.
Just as social media platforms like Twitter can facilitate online discussions between students outside the classroom, instructors can incorporate active learning techniques into the actual online course design as well. Web-based resources supplement — or in some cases replace — classroom lectures through online tutorials and quizzes. Interactive and active learning exercises like the ones mentioned here are easily replicated online.
Acrobatiq’s Smart Author tool allows instructors, course developers, and instructional designers to create online modules reinforcing the course content. For example, instructors at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona, use Acrobatiq’s platform to develop preview pages embedding videos and links that provide context to an upcoming lesson.
These elearning activities provide ample opportunities for students to engage with the course material at their own pace. They seek out the content relevant to their own needs and interests. They take an active role in their learning by reading, writing, and undertaking active learning and problem-solving assignments.
Elearning platforms have the added benefit of capturing learning data, and can feed analysis and insights to both the students and the instructors. Instructors can assess the progress of each student and the class as a whole, and then use this information to make adjustments to upcoming active learning activities.
Just as active learning techniques and lectures complement each other, so can active learning and online instruction.
Learn how to design instruction that incorporates active learning activities by visiting our resources library.
Maria Wood is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in business reporting, finance, education and technology.