Preparing the Environment for Active Learning

Steven Volk, February 8, 2015

David Gooblar had a good column on “Why Students Resist Active Learning” in a recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That led me to all sorts of similar posts such as “Hang in There! Dealing with Student Resistance to Learning-Centered Teaching” by Rick Reis at Stanford, or “’What if Students Revolt?’ – Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation,” by Shannon Seidel and Kimberly Tanner for CBE Life Sciences Education. When the articles began to sound more like counterinsurgency techniques than pedagogy, I stopped looking. But why look elsewhere when we have lots of examples in our own classrooms. Probably from this past week.

Here are a few things to think about when considering active learning techniques that have worked for many of us. There are a number of reasons why faculty are wary of active learning approaches, and I’ll address one of them, and propose a solution, in next week’s “Article of the Week.” But for now, we’ll stick with the students.

Bike

Olle Svenson, Learning to ride a bike, Vasaparken, Stockholm (CC)

Start at the start: what is active learning? Quite simply, active learning proposes shifting pedagogy from teacher centered to learner centered, from a teaching practice based on the supposition that the best approach to learning is for teachers to pass their knowledge on to students, to a learning theory that is focused on how the learner integrates, constructs and creates understanding and knowledge. Active learning approaches also shift the context of teaching and learning from thinking about learning as a process whereby the teacher imparts knowledge to a classroom full of students, to a perspective that values the teacher’s ability to creates a learning environment that is attends to psychological, pedagogical, technological, cultural, historical, and pragmatic elements; a perspective that requires that we be aware of the different experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds of each of our students.

The learning theory that supports such an approach has been developing for at least a century, through the work of cognitive science, educational psychologists, educational philosophers, and classroom practitioners, people such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Barbara Rogoff, Maxine Greene, and many others. Active learning argues that we achieve mastery by doing, not (only) by listening or reading. “Learning is not about passivity and order,” Peter Johnston writes in Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2004, p. xxii), “it is about the messy process of discovery and construction of knowledge.” Or, as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger wrote in what has become one of my (and my students) favorite quotes: “the purpose is not to learn from talk…it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate…participation” [Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 108-09]

Components-of-Wengers-social-theory-of-learning

Components of Wenger’s social theory of learning

Learning is actively constructed and, therefore, we need to think of it as a relationship between people, taking place in communities, and as intimately connected to activity. If this is an accurate way of understanding how significant learning occurs and mastery is achieved, and there is a large body of research on the topic, see here and here for two meta-analyses, then it means we have to rethink pedagogies that only or largely focus on student listening.

I can already see at least two objections coming my way, so let me address them off the bat. The first I heard from a student in a class I taught last Wednesday. After spending a good part of the class asking students how they thought about their own process of learning and then introducing some literature on learning theory (this is a class on Latin American history, by the way), a student said, “But I learn best when I’m reading, alone in my room.” The second objection will come from my faculty colleagues: “Are you saying that we never should lecture? That we should just stand back and let the students talk about whatever’s on their minds?”

Thomas-Hawk-Reading-Lolita-in-Teheran

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

In answer to the student comment, I told him that reading is not just important, but essential. Achieving significant learning does not occur in some abstract space; it is always rooted in the subject that one engages, whether Latin American history, in my case, or any other subject. To engage in this learning requires a foundation of information gained through reading or by other means. But the literature also argues that students will only gain mastery over the information, they will only make it their own, through a process of reflection and, often, socialization.

Similarly, answering faculty concerns, adopting active learning approaches doesn’t mean that we stop lecturing, no longer guide our students’ learning, neglect to provide them with a framework for learning, or deprive them of our own narratives. It means fundamentally that lecturing should be one part of a larger repertoire of approaches and that we have a unique opportunity in each class to structure a learning environment in which students can reflect, defend, talk, and explore with each other because, well, there they are, all…together. Actively engaged learning is not a revelation for any scientist who teaches lab, or to any humanist or social scientist who organizes discussion sections for her students. But there are great benefits to student learning when we include active learning techniques into all of our classes.

But let’s return to student concerns about active learning approaches. We have all heard students say that they signed up for the course to hear what we, their professors and experts on the subject, have to say; that they don’t like to talk in class or may actually be intensely uncomfortable when asked to “perform” in class. Students will complain on their evaluations (we’ll get to that next week!) that class discussions were a waste of time; that their peers weren’t prepared, and therefore the discussions were aimless, uninformed and uninformative, and far from the subject of the class. “We didn’t sign up for this class to hear what Kayla has to say about the reading when it’s totally clear that she hasn’t done it,” they will complain. “We came to hear you!”

So, let’s begin by admitting that a lot of what students grumble about is often right on the mark. When students haven’t prepared for a discussion, we can be fairly sure that it will be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Further, discussions which are poorly set up by the faculty (“Your task is to discuss the readings”), will usually not yield the results you’re looking for. It is true that some students are deeply uncomfortable speaking in class for a number of reasons, some good and some not so much so. (See the “Article of the Week” from September 9, 2013: “The Sounds of Silence” for more on this. When I wrote above that we need to be aware of the different experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds of each of our students, attending to this kind of situation is an example of what I meant.)

Clearly, then, active learning environments work best when students are prepared and when faculty structure the discussions well. (Students will often think that we turn to discussion because it’s a lot easier than preparing a lecture, when just the opposite is the case. It takes a lot of time, and produces untold anxiety, to “unscript” a class.)

Given all this, here are a few things to think about in terms of preparing students for an active learning environment.

  • I usually spend time at the start of the semester talking about learning theory, what the research tell us about how students learn, and what that means in terms of my own pedagogy and teaching design. It’s kind of funny (or maybe sad), but when I asked my class of 50 students if they had been in any class, from kindergarten to the present, where the teacher asked them if they thought about how learning occurred (as opposed to, say, whether they learned best when studying in the library vs. their dorm room), not one raised a hand. Maybe they were shy, but if we’re in the business of teaching and learning, engaging the question of learning is not a bad way of introducing students to why you make the pedagogical choices you do.
  • I also have them read and discuss some articles, particularly that of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, on “communities of practice,” which not only introduces them to constructivist learning theory, but raises the question of their participation in their own learning, and how they move from legitimate “peripheral” learners to “core” participants. This suggests not only that I, but that they, too, are responsible for the learning that goes on in the class, for their own learning as well as that of their classmates.
  • Since they are responsible for the learning that happens in the class, two things follow: (1) they have to come to class prepared to participate, and (2) they have to take seriously the contributions of their peers in discussions, not just what I am saying.
  • I know full well that what we talked about in the first week of class will vanish as quickly as the first blooms on my magnolia tree (will I even see them this year!). So I revisit the theme quite often. Remember when we talked about…?
TEAL-Classroom-Roberta-Baker

TEAL Classroom (University of Texas), Roberta Baker (CC)

Of course, this and $3.25 will get you a medium skim latte at the Slow Train. More is needed from us; there are ways we can structure our classes to help encourage the learning that is supposed to come from a student-centered environment. Here are a few ideas:

  • If discussions depend on the students having done the reading or other preparation, give them quizzes or establish other mechanisms to make sure they are prepared (reading responses, a Blackboard discussion group, posting questions, etc.). A flurry of recent research reports suggest, in fact, that frequent quizzes are one of the best ways to solidify student learning, and quizzes are actually a part of active student learning. (I’ll turn to this research in a future “Article of the Week.”)
  • Structure discussions appropriately: What are your goals for the discussion? How have you set up your prompts? How will you know if the students have reached the goals you have set? Have you varied the composition of the discussion groups so that they are with different students and not just their friends?
  • Help students be more responsible for learning in discussions: you can have them take notes in the discussions, generate a set of questions from their conversation, write group conclusions on the board, to a Google Doc, or in some other way. Have a 2-3 minute “think-pair-share” where each student summarizes the most important points to come out of his/her group and shares it with someone from a different group.
  • Use active learning techniques all the time, not just on the day devoted to discussion sections. If students know that they will be in lecture mode for two days a week (even if they are encouraged to ask questions for clarification), they will be less practiced at discussing when the day devoted to discussion or lab comes around.

Try different approaches so that students who really are uncomfortable talking have other opportunities to share their learning. Free writing exercises are one way to help those students. And don’t be afraid to lecture. Shorter lectures (less than the full 50 or 75 minutes of the class) are important ways to establish central themes, provide critical background, or, importantly, to summarize and synthesize at the end of class. This can be particularly important in a class where the activities are varied and would benefit from some pulling together at the end.

Finally, stick with it and ask advice of colleagues if this approach doesn’t seem to be working well. For students who are more accustomed to classes in which they are mostly listening to a lecture and taking notes, the learning curve can be steep. Don’t give up because your attempt to get student discussions going seems to crash and burn after you try it once. Again, talk to colleagues and think about having them sit in on a class to give you advice. It will pay off for the students, and for you, in the end.

One thought on “Preparing the Environment for Active Learning

  1. Pingback: Preparing the Environment for Active Learning – Bear Medicine = Gary J. Sack

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