According to Pat Wolfe - "No matter how creative, colorful or exciting a lesson is, if the teacher's brain is the only one interacting with the material, the teacher's brain - not the student's brain - is the only brain forming dendrites."
Hi, I am Kalyani Premkumar, Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist of the College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. Today, I would like to reflect on Active learning.
The traditional lecture, where the lecturer talks and the student listens, is the most common teaching method used in most college classrooms. But does this method promote student learning? Think back about your own learning – how did you learn? What do you remember best?
Evidence indicates that students learn better when they are actively involved in the learning process. It is therefore important for Instructors to understand what active learning is, the benefits of active learning, the barriers that prevent the use of active learning processes and examples of a few techniques that can be used.
What is active learning?
Many argue that learning in any form has to be active, and the traditional lecture too constitutes ‘active learning.’ A review of the literature indicates that students need to do more than just listen. Active learning is any well-structured, teacher-guided, student-centered activity that “substantially involves students with the course content through talking and listening, writing, reading and reflecting.” More importantly, the student has to be engaged in higher order thinking tasks such as analysis, problem-solving, synthesis and evaluation. Instructional activities that involve students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing constitute active learning.
Why active learning?
There are a number of benefits and reasons for using active learning. Students prefer active learning strategies in classrooms to traditional lectures. It stimulates higher order thinking and skills. The techniques promote learning in students with different learning styles. In addition, students are motivated when they are actively involved in the learning process. Active learning facilitates participation by the entire group. Here, the student takes responsibility for his/her own learning. Improved interpersonal skills, increased retention and transfer of new information are other benefits seen.
Barriers to adoption of active learning
Despite the evidence to the benefits of active learning, many instructors are reluctant to use active learning techniques. Many of the instructors have been taught in the traditional manner and are hesitant to adopt new techniques and undergo the anxiety that usually accompanies any kind of change or risk. Even at the college of medicine, there is often little faculty incentive to change.
The most common barrier cited is the lack of time to ‘cover’ all the material. There is also the perception that using active learning strategies may increase preparation time. How can active learning be managed in large classes? is another question asked by teachers. Some identify lack of resources and equipment as barriers.
In active learning, students take responsibility for the learning. As such, instructors are reluctant to loose control. What if the students do not participate? Do I have the necessary skills to try a different teaching method? are other questions that plague some instructors.
But each of the barriers can be overcome by thoughtful and careful planning in the part of teachers. It is also important for instructors to use active learning techniques that suit their personalities and comfort level. A variety of active learning strategies – from simple to complex, exist and teaching methods can be chosen according to suitability.
Students can be engaged in individual or small group activities both in small and large-sized classes. Simple techniques that can be adopted with very little preparation include: pausing to enhance recall; think-pair-share – where the student is given time to think, then turn to their neighbor and share their thoughts); question and answer pairs; one-minute-paper; focused listing (students are given time to list key points) and buzz groups. Other strategies that require more planning include scenarios/case studies, reading assignments, simulations, interactive computer programs and problem-based learning. Simple active learning methods that could be easily used with technology, such as PowerPoint games are also freely available. Today, I would like to expand on the simplest of techniques that require least preparation.
Let me describe an interesting study on the technique of pausing – if you can call it a technique, and convince you that it works. Here, the instructor paused for two minutes every 12-18 minutes of lecture. That means, it was done on three occasions during a lecture. This was done on each of five lectures. During the pauses, the students worked in pairs to discuss and rework their notes without any interaction with the instructor. At the end of the lecture, the instructor gave three minutes time for students to write down everything they could remember from the lecture. The students were tested on the information 12 days after the last lecture. A control group received the same information (but without the pauses) and were similarly tested. This study was done in two separate courses repeated over two semesters. The researchers found that students who participated in lectures with pauses did significantly better in the test - the difference in mean score between the two groups was two letter grades.
These findings have important implications and are consistent with research that suggests that the ability to retain information decreases substantially after 10-20 minutes. Inclusion of pauses, or short active learning activities into the lectures improves student learning and this happens despite the reduction in lecture time!
One may then argue: If the lecture time is reduced, how can I teach everything? - there is too much content to 'cover.' Concerned about this issue, other researchers did a study on 123 medical students randomly distributed into three groups. The three groups were similar in the cumulative GPAs and knowledge base. Three different lectures on the same subject, with varying density (90%, 70% and 50%) of new information in the lectures were prepared and administered to the groups. The lecturer spent the remaining time reinforcing the material. The researchers found that students attending the ‘low density’ lectures learned and retained the lecture information better. This implies that the amount of new information learnt by students in a given time is limited and instructors may be defeating the purpose when this limit is exceeded. Instructors may be better off presenting only the basic material needed to achieve the learning objectives and spending more time reinforcing facts and concepts in order to promote student learning.
So, try it yourself. For a start - just pause for 1-2 minutes every 12-18 minutes.
The philosophy behind the active learning strategy is that students "learn best by doing, not by watching or listening". There are a number of benefits to adopting active learning strategies in the classroom. Yet, the barriers that exist among instructors have to, and can, be overcome by careful and thoughtful planning. A variety of active learning strategies, from simple to complex, exist and the instructor should choose one that is most suitable for the objective in question, taking into consideration his/her own comfort level.
The success of an active learning methodology does not depend only on the methodology but, ultimately, on the “constantly evolving relationship between methodology and learners”, facilitated by the educator.
According to Carl Rogers, The only learning that really sticks is that which is self discovered.