10 Key Points About Active Learning

Cathy N. Davidson describes what she wishes she had known when she started teaching active learning courses.

January 25, 2018
 
 
iStock/DrAfter123

For well over a decade, I’ve been exploring the science of learning, cognitive neuroscience, research on memory and studies of pedagogy, as well as reading everything I can get my hands on having to do with techniques and methods for meaningful, engaged classrooms. I’m constantly learning, always trying new things when it comes to active learning, which I define as a theory and method of teaching that engages students in the process of thinking meaningfully and deliberately about and then co-creating their learning experiences, in the classroom and beyond.

In various classes, my students take the role of leaders in the instructional design, participating in shaping some or all of the syllabus, pedagogical experiments, individual and collaborative research projects, class presentations, and assessment methods. Active learning means shifting some of the leadership of the course to the students and creating a situation where they will be responsible, in a significant measure, for their own learning. It means rethinking the purpose of higher education not simply as the mastery of content and the attainment of a grade for a course, or even the awarding of a diploma, but as helping students prepare for all the rest of life -- both in college and beyond.

For a serious, lifelong educator, sharing authority in the classroom (as active learning requires) can be frightening. Here are things I wish I knew when I started down this exciting, productive, rewarding and, ultimately, better path for higher education.

Students are as afraid of active learning as we professors are. We’ve all had the same traditional, formal education and are conditioned to see one-way transmission as the norm -- and our comfort zone. The fact is that sometimes students want us to lecture at them, tell them what will be on the final, say what the outcomes will be and then just give them a grade. Ideally, it will be a high one, since they’ve done all the work. And, no doubt, they’ll grade grub if it isn’t. I’m no longer surprised if a student balks at active learning. I assume it and make that hesitancy part of the conversation about the purpose of education.

Just as my colleagues feel “uncomfortable” turning the responsibility for learning over to students, so too do some students begin contemptuous -- which is to say fearful -- that active learning means the professor is getting out of work. It’s only after they see it work -- after they see themselves undergoing a transformation -- that they realize that active learning is about sharing in the process of learning.

Despite their fears, students always come through. At times, when I let students design a unit, a final project or an entire class, I worry that I might be going too far. No need! In 15 years of engaging in active learning, students have never failed me. Trust them! They have set goals for themselves that have exceeded my expectations, and they have surprised and delighted me in every imaginable setting -- whether they are middle schoolers in an after-school program in inner-city Chicago or doctoral students at an Ivy League university -- and in small groups as well as huge lecture courses.

Almost nothing about the way we learn in school is natural. If we really want to learn something outside school at any level, from kindergarten through professional school, we never go about it the way one learns things in school. Think about it. A driver’s license exam? I might read the book, take the practice test, see what I missed, read those sections again, take another practice test and over and over. I wouldn’t go hear a lecture. I wouldn’t take a seminar. Nor would I go into the Department of Motor Vehicles never having taken a test before and let just one test be the final determiner of whether or not I’d get my license. I’d be taking those tests to learn from the process -- not to earn a final (summative, irrevocable, determinative) grade.

Similarly, if I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, I certainly wouldn’t seek out a teacher who would give me an A, B, C, D or F grade on what I learned over a three-month period; I’d want someone to take me from where I was to somewhere more proficient. And if I were teaching my 9-month-old baby to walk, I wouldn’t give her an F the first time she fell and call it a day. And so on.

It’s hard to think of any learning situation outside school that operates the way the classroom operates. The classroom is about submission to a specific set of rules about how you learn, who you learn from, what counts as learning, who gets to count as “smart.”

The purpose of traditional, formal education is evaluation, not learning. (And that’s not a good thing.) The critical race theorist and poet Fred Moten recently noted that if you were looking down on education from on high, you would just assume its purpose was evaluation -- that its primary function was to show someone with less power how much power someone else was given, institutionally, to evaluate them, to show them their place. Ouch! He’s not wrong about that. It’s the rare institution that does what I recently heard is standard at Oberlin College: to offer most classes credit/no record. I even heard a story (perhaps apocryphal) about an Oberlin student who once took every single class this way. His transcript then became a list of all the classes he had taken that he had passed. If he wished, he could have supplemented that official transcript with a dozen more courses he had taken simply to “learn something” but hadn’t done the work in -- hadn’t “passed.” (NB: I heard this guy went on to a high-prestige medical school.)

In an active learning class, the preparation is front-loaded. Active learning takes lots of scaffolding. You need to take a lot of time thinking deeply and carefully before you then have the right setting where students can take the lead. You must know not just the content but also how to design challenging readings, learning experiments, maker exercises, interactive experiments -- all kinds of ways that students can step in and take responsibility for the course. Will they be designing the syllabus? Some of it or all? Will they be contributing to assessment and helping to determine standards for the course? Will they be publishing their work on a public website? Each of those takes serious planning and design before the course begins.

My co-teacher and I have scaffolded a syllabus in advance for a course called Black Listed: African-American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, Censorship and Publication. On the first day of class, Professor Shelly Eversley and I will leave the room and students will organize themselves into groups, choose from among the array of topics we have proposed and select dates for the classes they will lead. During the term, they will develop their topic, assign readings and come up with a distinct pedagogical experience for our graduate class. (And since they are almost all instructors themselves, they will apply this active learning exercise in their own undergraduate classes that week and report back on how it worked.)

All this takes a lot of structuring in advance. We have a private class website on which we will communicate with one another, and we have a public HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) site where anyone can watch how we build this course together. Here, students will recap the exercises they crafted for the class and publish research that the class as a whole has peer reviewed. Anyone can join this group.

But grading, in general, is a snap. Because so much of active learning is front-loaded and continual, with feedback being constant and formative, the “finals” (papers, exams, turning in grades) aren’t much different than what one has been doing all term. Because summative exams and papers are anathema in active learning -- because learning is a process, with lots of opportunities to repeat and improve (a friend says all of his active learning classes are “pass/try again”) -- by the end of the term, a student has a full, rich, carefully evaluated portfolio of work.

The final should be really just an affirmation or confirmation of a process mastered throughout the term. It’s a snap to evaluate because the evaluating, like the learning, has been continuously happening, and with the student’s involvement. If it is contract grading, the student may even know in advance what that final grade is, assuming they have done all they contracted to do.

A scaffold needs to be steady. Mechanics are essential. When I plan a student-led class, the first thing I do is to get down all the annoying details of calendaring. That allows all of us to focus on learning. Nothing stalls a student-led course faster than students trying to figure out when spring break does or doesn’t occur, what Friday course is actually on a Tuesday one week because of a holiday, when the guest lecturers are coming and so on. I learned the hard way that taking the time to plot out the semester helps students to self-organize effectively and creatively into groups.

Now, I buy huge Post-it notes and tack them around the room. If an 18-week course is going to have four project groups with two classes per group, I put up four posters and include the dates of the two classes. The other dates are for field trips, speakers, holidays, working sessions and the like -- things the students need not worry about. I then leave the room and assign them the tasks of figuring out what group they will be in, which dates among those posted work for them and what topics to study -- I usually give them half a dozen or more options to choose from, modify or remix, with a few sample texts for each. They have never failed to design a fantastic course. But it took those Post-it notes and that preplanning before this became a productive, rather than a futile and frustrating, exercise.

I can’t control everything. Neither can they. Someone recently asked me the single biggest difference between a course my students design and one I might design for them. I thought about it a bit and said, “Relevance.” When I design a course, I often think about “representing” the “content” of the “field.” When my students design a course, they always design one in which, whatever content they choose, it has something to teach them about how to live and understand their world right now. That means that, by the time their project rolls around, if something major is happening in the world, they well might tilt their reading of the work to that issue rather than worry about covering every aspect of the work. It’s a far more urgent, exciting way to learn. And I learn from my students every time I teach.

Content and coverage aren’t everything. As professors, we have it drilled into us that testable content is the most important thing we do and that we are not responsible and respectable teachers if we don’t offer full coverage of the topic. We brag about a 25-page syllabus or about “too much reading.” Stop! Everything we know about learning shows us that, when we overassign, we inspire skimming and cheating, not learning.

More to the point, if our metric isn’t test scores and grades but how one truly learns in a way that is applicable for everything that comes after graduation, coverage isn’t very important at all. We have more than 100 years of research emphasizing that learning for life is about finding what is relevant and applicable in all the vast array of material covered and finding out how that helps one to understand oneself or the world.

Going all the way back to the Hermann Ebbinghaus “forgetting curve” experiments of the 1880s, we have known -- and replicated in dozens if not hundreds of experiments -- that no matter how serious, responsible and dedicated we professors are to “covering” our “topic,” students retain and apply subsequently only what is meaningful to them.

I like to call this “haunted by the 8 percent.” In experiment after experiment, if you test students with basically matched backgrounds (say, from the same educational institution and major) who took a big introductory course on a topic (say, Psychology 101) six months in the past and compare their results with those of other students who never took the course, the differential in test scores is only about 8 percent. Here’s a variation: recently, at one of the nation’s elite private prep schools, students were given, with no warning, the exact same exams one September that they had taken as final exams the previous May. The average grade on finals was about A-minus/B-plus. On the September retests: F.

Boredom and irrelevance (not laptops) are the biggest source of distraction in any class. One reason active learning is so effective is because it is, well, active. It engages attention because students take responsibility for their own learning. We know coverage isn’t as important as we think it is. So what does count? Attention.

Attention is highly selective -- but powerful. Basically, what counts for learning is how one enfolds important content into new ways of acting in the world -- a new skill that one uses and relies on, a new understanding of a complicated text or problem, a new approach to problem solving, a new paradigm that changes the way one views the world. We pay attention, in an educational setting, to what is meaningful to us. In a course, what is meaningful is that which literally grabs our attention and has an impact beyond the class itself.

For example, if it is meaningful to you to score an A on the exam, then you learn the material for the exam -- and forget about 75 percent of it within a few weeks of the exam being over. (There’s lots of research on this.)That’s how short-term memory works: it keeps what it needs for when it needs it and then discards what isn’t meaningful beyond that point.

When we learn something that is meaningful to us, something we know we will need to succeed in our future, something that changes how we think or act in the world, something where we actually apply knowledge to a real-life experience or by making something or by doing original research and finding an important conclusion -- in those situations (all active learning), we can remember and apply our knowledge over and over for the rest of our lives, building on it, letting it grow inside us and letting it help us to grow.

One of my students came up with a wonderful total-participation exercise that shows how, even reading the same text, we all pay attention differently. When she ran our class, she had each student write down one sentence that had disturbed or moved or confused them from the required reading assignment. We went around, and everyone read their sentence. In a class of 25, not one person had chosen the same sentence. She had us do the same thing next with a 20-line poem. Again, the range of lines we selected was astonishing.

We think we all read the same text. In fact, we read the text of our lives in everything we read.

I’m not sure I knew any of this when I started. I learned techniques. I learned methods. I read about how we learn. I wish I’d understood all of this sooner … but maybe, when I think about it, it is better that I learned by doing. That, after all, is what active learning is. Let’s get started!

Bio

Cathy N. Davidson directs the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, 2017).

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