Ingredients of Active Learning

How can we foster active learning for our students? We can provide different types of formats and opportunities, like group problems, think-pair-share, clicker questions. What does it take to help our students learn?

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Here are some main ingredients for active learning:

  1. The learner needs to be motivated to learn. Your students have to want to learn the material. Motivation is one of the most important aspects of successful learning. Motivation can be enhanced by exciting lectures peppered with relevant stories and connections to your students’ lives and experiences. Motivation can be enhanced by selecting readings and creating assignments that are interesting and relevant. But, ultimately, that motivation comes from within. Perhaps we as instructors can provide boosts to motivation at key times of the semester.
    1. Talk with your class about their motivations for being in your class- have them reflect back on their original desire to take the class.
    2. Talk with your class about what they have accomplished so far in the semester and how those accomplishments set them up for additional gains in learning.
    3. Ask your students to write a short piece reflecting on their own assessment of their level of motivation. Ask them what might increase their level of motivation?
  2. The learner needs to want to attend– to be there mentally and physically. Attention wanders during long lectures, especially if the lights are dimmed on the material is “dry” and technical. That’s one reason why flipped learning and collaborative group learning are so in vogue right now. But, I’ve seen just as many students just going through the motions through these group activities. Attention wanders during small group work, with students checking their phones or talking about unrelated things. In the end, it is up to the student to pay attention. As instructors, we can try to enhance the environment to encourage attention, but we cannot create the attention.
    1. Change the class format to shake things up a bit. Have a fun group activity like a bingo game to reinforce concepts or integrate ideas.
    2. Give some individualized feedback, in the form of an email perhaps, that notes positive attention in class or asks for input on ways to enhance that individual’s attention in class.
    3. Have a goal-setting conversation as you approach the first exam or large assignment.
  3. The learner needs to reinforce the learning with practice, repetition. We might have a little more impact here. We can provide homework practice or review concepts in class in different ways, to provide chances for practice and repetition. For most classes, particularly science classes, practice and repetition in the form of studying for quizzes and exams, is an essential aspect of learning. By having quizzes and exams, students have an external motivator (the exam score) to drive attention and practice. As instructors, we can provide guidance about study strategies. But, in the end, it is up to the student to engage in the repetition needed to learn.
    1. Provide low-risk practice: homeworks, in-class reflection pieces, group activities
    2. If relevant to your course, provide opportunities for extra-credit that involve student exploration of concepts or additional research using library resources.
    3. Hold additional office hours for students to bring in questions

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When I reflect on my students’ learning experiences in different situations, it becomes clear that successful learning is more about the student than about me. When my students utilize the main ingredients of active learning, they create a successful and long-lasting body of knowledge. When one or more ingredient is missing, the learning is not as successful.

As instructors, we need to help our students reach for their main ingredients. Each is within them.

“You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self motivation.” – Homer Rice