April 12, 2019

Active Learning: Conference Recap

First of all, a big thank you and congratulations to the organizers of the Salt Lake City ARLIS/NA annual conference! Those of us on the blog team who were able to attend are still discussing and processing everything we encountered there, and we imagine many of you are, too!

The format of this post will be a little different from our recent posts, as we wanted to recap the Teaching SIG activities at the conference for everyone who couldn’t attend. As the biggest event was our sponsored workshop on active learning, however, this also seemed like a great time to touch on some of the basics of active learning, and share some of the projects that our presenters touched on in their lightning talks. A big thank you at the start to fellow presenters Courtney Baron, Ginny Moran, Olivia Piepmeier, Sara Quimby, and Shannon Robinson.

Many of us also got to meet in person for a very productive Teaching SIG annual meeting, as well. We’ll be sharing the minutes of those on this blog later. For now, without further ado, a recap of active learning and our session, Inciting Learning by Doing: Bringing Active Learning Into Your Classroom:

  1. What is active learning?
    Briefly, teaching strategies that engage all students in the learning process. Active learning is different from regular class discussion in that it is generally designed to ensure that all students will have to participate, whereas only a handful of students can answer questions you pose the entire class. Active learning can range in complexity and time commitment from something as simple as a pause for individual reflection or a minute paper to an experiential learning site visit or a role play activity.
    It’s worth noting that active learning does not have to replace lecture entirely! Sometimes there is information you can’t communicate to your students through an active learning exercise. Our goal is just to shift more of the learning process into one in which the students are learning by doing, or by directly engaging with the material, rather than by listening or receiving.
  2. Why use it?
    Because it works! There’s been a wide range of studies on active learning that have indicated its efficacy in promoting student success. In “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research,” for instance, Michael Prince found in his summary of studies that active learning improved critical thinking, increased retention of information, increased motivation, improved interpersonal skills, and decreased course failure. The 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement, meanwhile, demonstrated that high-impact practices like hands-on and collaborative active learning resulted in high levels of student achievement and personal development.
  3. What can it look like?
    Our lightning presenters went over a few ideas at the conference (included in the Powerpoint), but those aren’t a comprehensive list by any means! It can be helpful to think of active learning exercises or activities as on a spectrum from “simple” (low time commitment and planning) to “complex” (high time commitment and planning). Some examples of frequently used types of active learning include think-pair-share, small group brainstorming, role playing, and the jigsaw discussion technique.
    Games and gamification often overlap with active learning, too. Incorporating games in instruction can include using a preexisting board game to help your students grasp a subject, designing or introducing an education escape room or breakout, or incorporating game concepts (such as rules, competition, prizes, etc.) into an instruction experience. We didn’t specifically cover games and gamification in our session, but I (esclippa (at) gmail (dot) com) have a research interest in the topic, so I’m happy to chat if you’d like more information.
  4. What are some active learning best practices?
    • Choose meaningful and relevant activities: Your activities should be designed based on our student learning objectives, as different activities will meet different needs, and some may be more or less appropriate for what you’re trying to teach.
    • Explain the activity to your students: Generally, students grasp the learning objectives from an activity better if you’ve explained to them what the purpose of the exercise is.
    • Plan for facilitation: Though you’ll be spending less of your time talking and working during the session itself in an active learning moment, you will still need to be involved in managing the room. You may need to have a plan for things like getting students into groups, monitoring time, making sure all students are participating equally, etc.
    • Wrap-up: Students will also be more likely to grasp the learning objectives if you debrief after the exercise. This is also a great opportunity to help nudge them in the right direction, if their conclusions are a bit further afield than you’d like.

During the lightning talks, our six presenters shared examples of active learning they’ve incorporated into their classrooms. These included using Padlet to explore ideas and resources for a Theater 101 design project, a collaborative analysis of the research process, the use of e-learning tools and guides for a flipped classroom approach, and several different concept mapping exercises. You can read more about each activity in our Powerpoint:

We also worked through the process of creating an active learning exercise using this worksheet, which included individual, partner, and small group work. If you can find a partner to work with, we invite you to try it out for yourself!

We hope this has been a helpful introduction to active learning for you, and that the worksheet proves a valuable resource if you find yourself trying to develop a new way to incorporate active learning into your instruction. Please feel free to contact us by email or in the comments with questions, and stay tuned for updates from the SIG meeting!

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