Active learning: Something we all have to get used to

In this chapter Shpend Voca attempts to break the cycle of student passivity that goes hand in hand with lecturing as the dominant form of teaching. The aim of his teaching innovation was to increase the quantity and quality of student contributions during the teaching process and the methodology he used to achieve this goal was having students work in pairs. Two four-minute blocks were included in six of his fifteen lectures. During these blocks, students working in pairs would share their experiences, if they thought they had learnt anything new during the discussion, or to raise questions.

The result of this approach was an increase in the quantity of student contributions. However, their quality remained at lower cognitive levels with most student questions and comments focused on the clarification, understanding and application of concepts rather than on analysis, synthesis or evaluation.

Personally, I think that working in pairs is an excellent first step in disrupting monologic teaching, which socializes students into the role of passive listener and (beginning) teachers into the role of talking head. Teachers thus learn to think about teaching in terms of “What am I going to talk about,” or in other words: “What am I going to do in class today?”, instead of thinking along the lines of “What should students be doing in class and what conditions can I create to make those things possible?”

In my experience, it has been more effective to incorporate student activization from the very beginning of the course, establishing a precedence for subsequent classes. What I want is for students to leave the first class session with the experience that everyone in the course has to be an active participant. I then try to ensure that this approach is repeated in the subsequent class meetings, until it becomes the norm. In other words, “being active” in my classes is the norm.

Of course, this all sounds very nice on paper, but it is hard to do in practice! For any discussion, you need a partner who is both willing and able to discuss things with you. Research has consistently shown that what works for teachers in real-life situations, and what has worked for me, is to have a well thought-out system of which questions you want to ask students and which you want to discuss with them.

Another approach that works well is based on the use of debate. Students defend a variety of viewpoints, thanks to which they have to activate their knowledge from various disciplines and learn argumentation skills. With this approach, it is a good idea to allow students to prepare their arguments in advance, which will generally result in higher quality responses because students are actively using higher cognitive functions.

Responses prepared in advance can also take the form student pair work as used by Shpend Voca. In this case, I would probably recommend asking the students to prepare a “product” (e.g. “Write three questions that interest you about topic XY”) than focusing on “process” (e.g. “Discuss….”). All of these suggestions can of course be combined into one longer activity!

Pedagogical communication is part of a system and any changes to this system can result in challenges and uncertainty on both sides of the classroom. Along the lines of those presented by Shpend Voca, it is us, teachers, who must introduce these changes and be prepared to work to overcome any issues that arise from the introduction of active teaching methods. We also need to learn to implement new skills such as leading open, moderated and closed discussions. The reward will not only be better learning outcomes for our students, but also that we will become active teachers because we are engaged in dialogues with students. This is, I believe, well worth the effort.

Petr Sucháček, Pedagogical Competence Development Center (CERPEK), Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic

Early Career Academics’ Reflection on Learning to Teach in Central Europe

SEDA is publishing an open access book online, with a chapter released on its website every fortnight.  Each time a chapter is released it will be accompanied by a blog post published on SEDA WordPress. The book is called Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe, edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon. This book contains case studies by participants of a new educational development programme who redesigned their course sessions to apply student-centred approaches, using innovative teaching methods and stimulate good learning.

1 thought on “Active learning: Something we all have to get used to

  1. I wish this notion of active learning, which can be achieved through facilitation, was more prevalent within higher education. Many campuses have departments dedicated to aiding faculty in developing their teaching skills but so few of these individuals seek out that aid. Research for the better part of half a century has continued show that adult learner gain more out of their learning moments when they are included actively in that learning. Yet despite the evidence mass lectures are still found at universities around the globe.

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