These days in college teaching, student-centered learning, active learning, flipped classrooms, are all the rage. The focus is putting the learning in the classroom, in addition to outside the classroom. More is better. More videos, more collaborative assignments, more projects and activities. These strategies, meant to replace the “passive learning” of the lecture, have been shown to enhance learning. Assessments like exam scores and questionnaire results convince us that “talking at” our students doesn’t work as well.

It certainly seems like an active classroom is an effective one. The buzz of student conversation, focused around a collaborative problem set in preparation for a class discussion seems effective. But is it really for most of our students?

image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/198439927305278129/

I think it really depends on the student group. We need to be flexible and observant. In the best of conditions, the small groups talk together and accomplish the task at hand- the concept map gets drawn, the flow chart is completed, the small presentation is prepared. Sometimes it seems like each student is playing a part, although most of the time there is a dominant student and at least a couple who are mostly listening.

If you look at the table above, the student is the key to success here. You can deliver a lecture where students are engaged, prepared, open-minded, interested, exploring, questioning, connecting. You can have a group activity where students are passive, externally motivated (going through the motions), unprepared, close-minded, hiding their intellect, not connecting to their life outside school.

Many times, especially for introductory level classes in my experience, the groups first divvy up the components of the activity. Then, each member or pair works on that component. There really isn’t a give and take across the whole activity like you had imagined. The learning is further compartmentalized. Then, as groups report out, the individuals each say their part. There! They have each participated and, before you know it, class is over. But, how much learning took place?

I’ve noticed that my senior level classes seem better at this kind of learning. They have had much more practice at it than my younger students. They seem to know that they need to take notes during the activity and during the reporting. The less experienced students seem to tune out each other, or at most just passively listen, waiting for their turn. Or, they wait for me to say a few words at the end of each student report and that’s what they take notes on.

We as instructors have to keep close tabs on how much learning is going on. We need to ask probing questions or add in some summary sessions so that our students have a clearer idea of what they should have learned from the class activity. These activities and active learning sessions need to be scaffolded by you, especially in those classes where the students do not seem to be wholly engaged. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to be flexible enough to change the format if it seems like the particular group isn’t benefiting from all the student-learning-centered formats in class.

The key here is to get our students engaged, get them to take responsibility for their learning. If your students are committed to learning, a riveting lecture can be just as effective as a group activity.