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Active Learning Strategies

What Is Active Learning?

Active Learning refers to strategies and activities that encourage students to engage with the material being learned in order to improve retention and understanding. When we talk about active learning, we sometimes think that means that the body has to be active. We might picture discussions and group work and students working on problems on the board. Those things are all active learning to be sure, but the only part of a student that really has to be engaged for active learning to take place is the brain. Active learning can be as simple as a pause for reflection. It doesn’t have to take a lot of planning or monopolize your class time to be effective. The goal is simply to get students actively analyzing and evaluating the content of the lesson. What that looks like in practice is determined by the instructor’s teaching style and the course objectives.

Active learning can be as simple as a pause for reflection.

What does active learning look like?

What active learning looks like can vary from class to class and instructor to instructor but there are some consistent features that are present in most active learning environments. A traditional class structure often consists primarily of lectures or instructor demonstrations while students watch passively or take notes. By contrast, an active learning class structure usually consists of multiple mini-lectures (15-20 minutes) interspersed with active learning activities so that about the time the lecture reaches the end of a student’s attention span, students are called back to focus by an activity that engages their concentration in an active evaluation of the topic before returning to instruction. This fluctuation between active and passive learning helps students maintain concentration and, therefore, retain more information. (Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014, June 10). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111)

There are a number of activities that an instructor can employ to break up direct instruction time and engage students’ thoughts. Some quick, easy activities include minute paper/ muddiest point, think-pair-share, informal group discussion. These activities take relatively little prep time and won’t take up large segments of class time. If, however, you want to be more intentional with integrating active learning into your course, experiential learning and case studies can create meaningful learning experiences that help students connect what they are learning to its real-world applications. Between those two extremes, there is an entire spectrum of activities that can be adapted to various curriculum needs and teaching styles. 

Students gathered around papers on table

How do I prepare for active learning?

Start by preparing your students to participate in active learning activities. Help students see the benefits of active learning and productive struggle. Having spent most of their education passively listening to lectures, many students will need motivation to participate and get out of their comfort zones. Remind students that growth can only happen when we stretch outside of our current boundaries. Choose activities that will help students meet the learning outcomes of the course. Some activities require a large time investment on the part of the instructor to make them successful. For more complex activities, prepare rubrics, instructions, and resources that will be needed for students to understand the purpose and scope of the activity ahead of time so that implementation goes as smoothly as possible.

Trying something new can be just as uncomfortable for instructors as it is for students. If you would like to discuss ideas for active learning strategies that support your course objectives and promote student success, contact the learning design team (learning_design@davidsondavie.edu) for a consultation.