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Active learning: more fun, better results

Students who are active learners are more engaged and have more fun. Compared to passive learners they are more successful in finishing their studies. To learn actively, we need to make sure that teaching enables this.

As a teacher, setting up active teaching costs a bit more time and thinking, but we are rewarded by having a lighter load during lecture time, and more importantly with greater learning success of students. In the last step, you have shared a photo of active learning, maybe it looks something like the picture below? After some more evidence of why this is a good idea, this article will define active learning and elaborate on how to set it up in a course.

Group work, by Jasper Ottens. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 via University of Groningen (www.rug.nl). Group work, by Jasper Ottens. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 via University of Groningen (www.rug.nl).

Why?

Several studies have shown that active learning increases student success. The most convincing is an overview study by Freeman et. al. (2014). This study showed that students were 1.5 times more likely to fail in a class where lectures were given, as compared to a class with active learning approaches.

What is active learning?

We can not look inside the head of learners. And that is what this is all about. Is someone thinking hard? Is a learner actively making connections between knowledge they already have and new knowledge?

Sometimes this is named as the difference between deep and surface learning. Often, surface learning is associated with a student who is studying for the test, and is doing what the lecturers ask them to do. Deep learners learn because they want it themselves. They connect the knowledge to their own goals. They are internally motivated to study, be it because the topic is interesting to them, or maybe they need the knowledge because they would like to make a future career out of it.

As such, this connects to Bloom’s taxonomy of the learning domain. Bloom’s taxonomy describes levels of learning, and thus levels of knowledge. Lower levels of Bloom (remembering and understanding) can be taught by passive learning, higher levels of the Bloom taxonomy are more likely to be reached with active learning approaches. In other words: when you want to learn facts, it is fine to learn them out of a book, or watch online videos (passive learning). When you want to evaluate the best solution to a problem, or create a new type of product a live discussion or working in project groups (active learning) can be a good way.

How do you do it?

First you need to know your learning objectives. What exactly is it that students should learn? Think of constructive alignment: how are students tested on this? Then think of the form: how can a learner prepare for this test? What activity should they do? There is no -one size fits all- solution for this. Good teaching and learning depends on aspects such as the context, audience, planning, and motivation of the lecturer. So, if you have a fun idea that fits to the learning objectives: go for it!

To help you plan the activity, you can make a planning table of all the activities to do in the lecture time you have. Compared to passive learning, active learning takes more time, so make sure it counts toward the learning objectives.

Time Lecturer activity Student activity Materials used Links to objective # Other..
           
           

You can plan more comprehensively, and use a table such as given below: [Planning teacher and student activities Planning teacher and student activities (Click to expand)

What form of active learning to choose?

There are many forms of active learning. In the most simple way, you can start up a discussion, possibly with online tools for discussion in larger groups, such as Mentimeter, or Todaysmeet. You can organise role plays, ask learners to write a blog of their experiences, or organise a flipped classroom. Check out some of the forms that lecturers at the University of Groningen have chosen in this booklet.

Conclusion

You have read why it is important to use active learning, and have gotten some tools to design active learning for yourself. When you are involved with planning a course activity, remember to think about the most effective way of learning, and think of the most engaging ways to activate learners. In the next video some more examples of ways to activate learners are given.

References

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Becoming a Student Assistant: Teaching and Mentoring

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