As part of a keynote panel discussion for the Improving University Teaching Conference in Santiago, Chile (July 2013), I was asked to ponder the issue of “30 Years of Active Learning.” Active learning has a much longer history than that, but I have had 30 years to reflect on, and benefit from, my active learning experiences in college.
I started college in 1983. I can recall a few impressive lectures from passionate professors, but most of the content-based learning has evaporated from memory. What stands out after all those years are the active learning experiences that led me to retain certain nuggets of knowledge and helped me grow as a person. Here are six critical learning experiences I had in college that shaped my knowledge and, ultimately, my career choices.
1. Interview-based assignments. Through interview-based assignments, I practiced valuable skills and learned empathy and respect for diversity. For a cross-cultural communication class, I interviewed an Australian student who opened my eyes to cultural preferences and similarities rather than differences. From an interview with a university administrator I learned of the many career possibilities in higher education.
2. Team-based assignments. Assignments that involved using cases, role-plays, and simulations taught me problem solving and group communication. They also allowed me to test my participation and leadership skills.
3. Independent research projects with an interdisciplinary connection. Projects that allowed me to pursue my own interests and delve deeper into a subject area were both enjoyable and memorable. I still have clear memories of several research projects, one that explored the portrayal of children in medieval portraits, another visual project on market supply and demand, and a project for which I created a human resources database. I left college liking research and thinking of it as a puzzle to be solved.
4. Out-of-class communication with professors. Several caring professors provided positive feedback and encouraged me to explore their disciplines. For example, Dr. Jane Hamilton Merritt, a Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist who spent time in a Buddhist temple, chronicled the Hmong people of Laos and brought the Vietnam War into our living rooms. She taught me to appreciate the writing of Pearl Buck and other world travelers who just happened to be women. She created in me the desire to travel the world.
5. Participation in campus organizations and events. When I was a new student, campus clubs and organizations gave me a sense of belonging and allowed me to meet others. Later, as a leader of campus organizations, I acquired more valuable interpersonal skills and learned to work with those at different levels in the campus community.
6. Internships. An internship at a New York advertising agency taught me about organizational functioning and gave me the opportunity to practice professionalism. It also provided the backdrop for another key learning experience, writing an honors thesis on organizational development. Together, these two active learning experiences led me to pursue a master's degree in organizational development, launched my first career as a communication trainer and consultant, and ultimately led me to earn a PhD in communication.
Thirty years after these college experiences, I am a communication professor and director of faculty development who employs and advocates student engagement in teaching and learning. Active learning experiences and high-impact practices, including team-based learning, problem-based learning, interdisciplinary connections, independent research, and internships, helped me thrive as a student. The added values of faculty-student interaction outside class and campus involvement led not just to better learning, but also to more career opportunities. I am grateful for the many excellent professors who cared enough to structure these life-changing learning experiences. If after 30 years any of my students remember an active learning experience that happened in one of my classes, I would consider that a teaching success. I would also be grateful and honored.
Contact Bonnie S. Farley-Lucas at email@example.com.