When to use Active Learning

It might not always be possible to teach in a dedicated active learning classroom. While many active learning strategies seem to work best when they take place in an Active Learning Classroom, (a classroom equipped with wall to wall whiteboards, monitors, small group tables etc.), there is no need to skip on active learning techniques if you do happen to get placed in an traditional classroom. Dr. Elena Brezynski, Assistant Professor of Biology talks about how she incorporates active learning strategies in her classroom, even without the benefits of a high tech learning space.

Choosing when to use an active learning strategy

Even the most exciting active learning strategy might become ineffective it is is used for three hours a day, everyday for an entire year. When planning to incorporate active learning strategies in your classroom, it might be helpful to think about natural breaks in your subject, in addition to normal cycles of attention and inattention. Some researchers argue that if students can pay attention to a two hour movie, they can pay attention to a two hour lecture. This may be true, but think about the pacing of even the most action packed movies. They slow down for dialogue, rely on flashbacks, and have calm breaks between hectic scenes to allow viewers to catch a mental breath.

It is also important to think about the cognitive load of your students at different points of class. Are students learning a lot of new material? If so, stopping to give them time to digest new material in the form of discussions, reflections, application, question and answer etc. can help them retain and incorporate new learning. Starting small, with even a one minute paper at the end of class can help students construct knowledge, notice where they have gaps, and also set up the expectation that they will be active participants in their learning.

A good practice is to start using active learning on day one of your course. This helps students know what is expected of them, and gives them an understanding of different ways they can participate in class. Students might be intimidated if they have been in a lecture based course and then suddenly in week four, they are asked in the middle of class to give their opinion on a particular subject. In this case, it might be best to have students reflect first on paper, then with a partner and then with the larger class as necessary. Then, when it is time to share with the entire group (after waiting at least 7 seconds for someone to respond) even the more quiet students might have something to say.

It is okay if you try out a new strategy in class and it doesn't work perfectly. All instructors continue to refine timing and scaffolding over the course of their career. Some activities that worked well with one group of students will not be as successful with others. Importantly, students are receiving instruction on how to think critically and reflectively, which is a good life-long skill to have, even if an activity does not work as smoothly as planned.