First Things First: Setting the Stage for Active Learning

March 19, 2018

First impressions are important, and as the old adage goes: “You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Admittedly, this may be a bit of anoverstatement when it comes to teaching a university course. But helping students understand why you designed a course in a particular way and what knowledge and skills you’re hoping they’ll gain throughout the term can help set the stage for a more productive and enjoyable experience for everyone.

This is particularly true when it comes to incorporating more active learning strategies into a course. Many students have become quite accustomed to certain modes of content delivery and introducing more dynamic learner-centered approaches can sometimes be met with resistance from students who don’t understand their purpose and value in enhancing learning. Below are four considerations for making the most of your conversations with students about active learning.

1. Defining active learning.

Discussions about the benefits and challenges of active learning in higher education have gained momentum in the scholarship of teaching and learning as well as the popular media during the past few decades. Yet, the practice of engaging learners in guided inquiry, hands-on activities, and critical thinking about real-world problems have always been central components of education. Through teaching and mentoring students both in and out of the classroom faculty are regularly engaged in active learning practices and it can therefore be  a useful exercise to establish your own perspective on the term and the ways that these strategies can be used to support your work. For me, active learning encompasses a wide range of pedagogical tools and strategies that help students make meaningful connections to course concepts, provide opportunities for inquiry and discovery, facilitate collaboration and critical discussion, and encourage ownership in the learning process. These approaches can also provide faculty with useful information about how students are approaching a given concept, and can help identify and correct misconceptions. At the same time, incorporating active learning into a course doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re excluding lecture presentations altogether. In the end, the most important thing is finding the right mix of strategies to align with course objectives and learning outcomes.

2. Setting clear expectations for engagement.

As with every course, providing students with a detailed overview of what to expect throughout the term can help alleviate concerns and minimize stress. This can be particularly relevant if you’re planning to incorporate active learning strategies such as team projects, critical discussion, and problem-solving activities. Many of these approaches require a higher level of engagement during class and preparation prior to class, so providing students with information about how these activities align with learning goals, how they factor into course grades, and the essential components of class preparation can help students feel more comfortable and confident from the start. In addition, using various tools and approaches throughout the term will support students with different academic strengths and learning preferences while also demonstrating that these activities are fully integrated as an essential and critical component of the course.

I’ve seen this play out in a lot of different ways based on the design of a course. For example, if the bulk of the class-time will be used for team-led discussions of real-world examples or case studies then, in addition to providing a rubric for the presentation, it may also be important to determine how to evaluate the participation of students who aren’t presenting on a particular day and provide clear instructions. Similarly, if it’s important that students come to class having completed the assigned readings and ready to discuss, then it may be worth it to think about how to encourage (and even incentivize) this practice.

3. Highlighting the benefits of active learning.

Research on the science of learning indicates that learning is an active process that requires engagement, attention, and motivation, and that individuals situate their learning within the context of their social environments, prior knowledge, and personal interactions. Additionally, a growing body of research focused specifically on active learning in higher education indicates that these more learner-centered pedagogical practices can help improve student’s academic performance, retention and persistence, and attitudes toward learning and engagement. Sharing this type of information with your students can be a good first step and will highlight the relevance of these strategies for the course.

Beyond the evidence though, it can be helpful to consider on a more personal level why you want to incorporate active learning pedagogies into your course and communicate this approach to your students. It may be fun to reflect back on your own learning experiences – both good and bad – and the ways that various opportunities to work with faculty and mentors, explore new concepts, and engage in guided practice influenced your academic journey. You may also want to talk to your students about how the specific types of activities you’re planning to use (e.g., small group discussion, visualizations, critical analysis, check your knowledge questions) will help deepen their understanding of course concepts and can help them prepare for assignments, exams, and papers. Plus, active learning can be really fun and make class time more engaging and interactive so helping students see the connection between your well-planned activities and their overall success in the course will go a long way in counteracting any initial reservations.

4. Nurturing the learning community.

Active learning is often accompanied by more interaction and dialogue among students during class time, and even in between classes on the course website and in working on team projects, for example. Therefore, creating a positive and inclusive learning community from the start is essential, including setting clear expectations for peer interactions (and faculty-student interactions) that focus on mutual respect, acceptance of diverse perspectives, and welcoming contributions from everyone. This can be accomplished in many ways based on the specifics of the course and community, with everything from helping students learn each other’s names to facilitating a discussion about civil discourse on the first day to formally incorporating team building activities into the curriculum. Finally, it’s good to make sure that all students have easy access to any tools and resources you’re using to support instruction so they can fully participate in all aspects of the course.