I recently reviewed an active learning workshop, and that’s gotten me wondering about active learning strategies and where we are in our thinking about them. We do know the answers to two questions. First, active learning strategies work—not all the time or uniformly but regularly. When they work, they get students involved, engaged, and sometimes even thinking. And second, we know that teachers love any instructional strategy that garners those results.
With active learning having been on the radar for several decades now, some strategies have gained seasoned veteran status. Think-pair-share and minute papers, for example, have long histories of use across a panoply of fields and exist in a host of iterated formats. In workshops, faculty learn about these and other generic learning strategies, which is as it should be. You can’t do active learning without activities and assignments. But what we haven’t emphasized enough in workshops is the importance of the content used to fill these structures. A think-pair-share can be as just as deadly as a poorly delivered lecture if students don’t understand the content, don’t see its relevance, or decide it’s boring. Active learning results from the marriage of strategy and content, and it’s up to teachers to arrange these marriages.
Sometimes good marriages just happen; more often they require work. The strategy may need to be tweaked or the content fine-tuned. Collaboration with disciplinary colleagues can involve exchanging experiences or brainstorming possible ways of uniting strategies and content. We also need to assess the health of those marriages and with criteria more robust than whether or not students “liked” what they were asked to do.
Even more than these generic strategies, faculty love specific, unique, and innovative active learning approaches. I just wrote about an activity that helps students understand why practice improves performance. Here are links to a few other examples: Maier’s rotating note taker, Locklin’s unmarked quiz, Offerdahl and Montplaisir’s approach that gets students generating substantive questions about assigned reading, and Rezaei’s research on students using notes to take quizzes. Share strategies like these with teachers (especially ones interested enough to read a column like this one) and hear an immediate, gut-level response—“Good idea!”—that affirms not only the viability of the approach but also the teacher’s ability to pull it off.
The content still matters in these activities, but their structure motivates students for several reasons. For one, the value of these activities is more apparent. Using Favoro’s (2011) work, I developed an activity that gets students listing and prioritizing content they expect will be on an upcoming exam. It gets students answering one of their favorite questions: “What’s going to be on the exam?” Additionally, these activities are not common; they don’t happen in every class. Sometimes the involvement results because the activity requires physical action as opposed to just mental movement; see the practice activity linked above, for example. Other of these strategies trust students with the content or give them a role in assessment. I have a colleague who gives students working in groups the criteria that will be used to assess their project and lets them weight those criteria. Transferring power to students frequently makes them anxious, but empowerment stands on the other side of trepidation.
I’m wondering whether we don’t need some upfront criteria for assessing the potential of active learning strategies—ways of looking at them more analytically rather than just intuitively. For example, how much involvement does the structure alone motivate? And then there’s the counter question: How much student involvement derives from the content? Little research has explored the obvious question of how “active” the active learning needs to be to generate learning. Does the strategy involve an equal amount of activity for all the students? That is, are they all experiencing it actually as opposed to vicariously? How does the strategy respond to student needs? Do some approaches work better when students are bored, confused, anxious, or feeling empowered?
I’m not sure how far our understanding of active learning strategies has advanced. There’s been a lot of strategy collecting, and having a good repertoire does make choice possible. But there probably hasn’t been enough organizing, categorizing, and assessing of the collection as there needs to be. Active learning strategies have found their way into many courses, but have they been unpacked and put in places that maximize their effectiveness?
Favero, T. G. (2011). Active review sessions can advance student learning. Advances in Physiology Education, 35(3), 247–248. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00040.2011