Active learning is an approach to education that does not consider students to be the passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from an expert, but rather, active agents in their own learning.
In active learning, formats such as traditional lectures, where students simply sit and listen while the teacher presents material, are combined with or replaced by other formats where students actively engage with the material, through talking, writing, reading and reflecting. Studies, such as Freeman et al.’s meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education, show that student learning improves when their professors incorporate active learning strategies.
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One particularly rich example of an active learning strategy is Problem-Based Learning. With this strategy, students are given a complex problem, usually resembling something they’d encounter in the real world, and are asked to solve it. They might work in groups, with a mixture of supervision by you and independent work, and would necessarily have to employ a range of skills relevant to the course and the field of study.
For example, students might be:
There are many other possibilities. The scale of these problems can vary; some might be designed to require part or all of a single class session, whereas others might be designed to require weeks of effort or, perhaps, the entire semester. However long it takes, the goal is to help students internalize and integrate what they’ve learned, apply their knowledge and skills flexibly under somewhat realistic conditions, think creatively, work cooperatively, and understand the real-world implications of what they’re studying.
Because student engagement with coursework translates into learning that lasts, taking stock of the principles and practices that lead to student investment in course material can make a dramatic difference in what students take away from a course.
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Making explicit connections between course material and students’ lives outside the course enables them to engage more deeply with the disciplinary content and become invested in it. When students recognize the value of a course and can see concrete examples of how it connects to a bigger picture, they are better equipped to appreciate the abstract concepts and better able to learn the material.
One possibility for actively engaging learning is assigning students projects, including community service projects, that engage them in the local community, experiencing local resources and conversations. Drawing links between academic material and their local milieu can make the classroom and the community more meaningful to students, and incorporating relevant volunteer projects can enrich class discussions and student projects. Community-based learning (CBL can be adapted to a virtual environment) is a key part of the Georgetown experience as part of the university’s mission to educate “people for others.”
Another way to increase student engagement is to ask students to reflect on their learning and make integrative connections across courses and disciplines. Building an ePortfolio or keeping an online journal, especially one that encourages students’ sense of ownership, can help inspire students to invest time and pride in their work.
Many of these strategies for improving student engagement can be viewed as social pedagogies. Social pedagogies, as articulated by Randy Bass, refer to those “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” In social pedagogy, students create work that is visible and meaningful to others—often their classmates but sometimes the world. Students often feel more energized to do good work when they are held accountable for their work (receiving praise as well as constructive criticism) by others, not just their professor.
Active learning doesn’t solve everything in a classroom, of course, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. Common mistakes, according to education researchers Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent, include making a “plunge into active learning with no explanation”; creating too-easy, busywork-style active learning experiences; and demanding immediate student enthusiasm for the activities. See this chapter from their book Teaching and Learning STEM for thoughts on how to avoid these problems.