Teacher’s Center

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December, 2012 - Implementing Active Learning Strategies in Your Classroom

This past November, I presented at the 2012 National Council for the Social Studies National Conference “Opening Windows to the World” in Seattle, Washington. The conference theme might have been a veiled nod to Seattle-based Microsoft, but there were far more iPads and iPhones in teachers’ hands. The conference was well attended and featured high-profile speakers such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Rick Steves as well as three days of some very interesting sessions.


I had my first experience presenting at the conference with a poster session that explored active learning and strategies for engaging students. The following is a condensed version of that presentation.


 “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”

Chinese Proverb


To be prepared for the challenges that stand before them, students must do more than just listen to lectures, read from the textbook and take standardized tests. Students must read, write, discuss, and think. Most importantly, students must be actively involved and engaged in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Active learning promotes instructional activities that involve students in doing meaningful activities and thinking about what they’re doing.


 The following video from Northwest Iowa Community College provides a great primer on active learning and discusses how it can be applied in traditional and online classes.


Most teachers who practice active learning with their students know it’s a solid, effective teaching tool. Its beginnings in American education can be traced back to the days of John Dewey. Since then, the practice of active learning in American schools has experienced some peaks and valleys through the decades. There was a revival in the 1970s, with some university and teacher college methods classes extolling the virtues of Herb Kohl’s The Open Classroom, Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and the fanciful Summerhill by A.S. Neill.


A lot has changed since the 1970s—but then again, a lot hasn’t. Most practicing teachers today have some exposure to active learning pedagogy. Many leading universities are wholly committed to active learning and have established entire departments in various academic areas, not just the education, dedicated to research and instruction of active learning. My April, 2011, blog “Active Learning in Higher Education” features many of these institutions.


Still, some teachers are hesitant to implement active learning or do so sparingly. Active learning requires students be “active.” They sometimes have to talk amongst themselves, leave their seats, or speak in extended sentences. For some teachers, having students act independent of direct instruction instills fears of losing control of their class. For others, dependent on the lecture method, having students work in groups or engage in simulations pushes them out of their own comfort zone. Still, other teachers mistakenly believe that practicing active learning methods takes time away from preparation for standardized tests.


Conducting active learning activities is not an alternative to more traditional methods of instruction such as lecturing and direct instruction. Many universities are now encouraging their faculties to integrate active learning strategies into their lectures and presentations. They’re finding that this not only enhances lectures but also expands their students understanding of the material, as evidenced by greater detail in their exam responses. [1]  As many teachers at many grade levels have found out, incorporating active learning in their classroom instruction doesn’t mean radically changing their instructional style, stressing their students, or taking time away from mandatory instruction. Active learning can be integrated into traditional classroom instruction with a minimum of stress and effort and have superior results. 


Whether you’re new to active leaning or have been practicing it for some time, it’s always a good idea to think about what you want to do. Active learning is most successful when both teachers and students are invested in the process and committed to its success. It takes some planning and understanding of what it can and can’t do. One of the major criticisms of active learning is that some advocates over promise its outcomes. Like many other instructional methodologies, it’s only as good as the people engaged in its practice.


Plan Ahead

When integrating active learning into your classroom, it’s a good to plan ahead. Start at the basics: What are your goals for your students and your program? What areas of your instruction would benefit from implementing active learning? What are the costs and benefits of implementing active learning in your classroom? How will you evaluate your level of success?


Planning Your Instruction

Once you’ve determined your overall goals and in what area of your instruction you want to use active learning, ask yourself some other questions as you prepare to integrate active learning into your teaching: What are the learning objectives for the lesson? How will active learning best accomplish these objectives? What materials will you need? What preparation do students need to fully participate? When will the active learning activity occur during class? How much time will you need to complete it? How will students respond to indicate the level of their learning? How will you evaluate students’ participation and any materials they produce?


Keys to Success 

  •  Be clear with your students on your reasons for using active learning. Discuss with them what active learning is, your expectations of them and what you believe will be the benefits for them.
  •  Develop a plan for implementing an active learning strategy into your teaching. Plan to collect feedback from students and your own criteria and modify as needed.
  •  Start small and pick an active learning activity that you’re familiar with. Make sure it is something you can do often to give students the practice they need and give you the feedback you need.
  •  Start early in the year or semester and stay with your plan. Adjust strategy and activities as needed. Invent new strategies and adapt existing ones to meet your needs.

Engaging students in active learning is a low-risk strategy that provides opportunities for students to engage in meaningful work and helps ensure students will be prepared for the challenges ahead. Below is a link from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning that lists and describes some basic activities and strategies that can be adapted to almost any classroom in any subject.  http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/active/strategies/inde...

[1] Feider, Richard M., Feider, Gary N. and Deitz, Hacquelin. “A Longitudinal Study of Engineering Student Performance and Retention vs. Comparisons with Traditionally Taught Students”, Journal of Engineering Education, 87(4), 469-480 (1998). http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/lon...  


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