Active Learning

Active learning is an approach to education that does not consider students the passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from an expert, but rather, active agents in their own learning.

In active learning, formats such as traditional lectures, where students simply sit and listen while the teacher presents material, are combined with other formats where students actively engage with the material, through talking, writing, reading and reflecting. Studies, such as Freeman et al.’s meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education, show that student learning improves when their professors incorporate active learning strategies.

  • Incorporating active learning techniques can readily be integrated into a lecture: between points, pose questions or problems, or assign short activities where students work individually or in groups to apply the information you have just presented.
  • It’s also possible to incorporate active learning to a greater degree, devoting significant class time to activities that are not lectures: group discussions, led by you and/or by the students; in-class student presentation and/or analysis of case studies; real-world simulations; or student-directed modules (where you are available as a resource, but you do not teach directly).
  • For a fuller list of possibilities, check out this compilation of ideas put together by the University of Michigan.

University of Maryland Professor Linda Hodges shares ideas to get active learning started in your classroom

Problem-Based Learning

One particularly rich example of an active learning strategy is Problem-Based Learning. With this strategy, students are given a complex problem, usually resembling something they’d encounter in the real world in the field, and are asked to solve it. They might work in groups, with a mixture of supervision by you and independent work, and would necessarily have to employ a range of skills relevant to the course and the field of study.

For example, students might be:

  • presented with a specific but complicated social problem and be asked to think of policy solutions, weighing political forces, economic considerations, research findings, and more, along the way
  • presented with studies that produce conflicting results (or studies that seem to conflict with some real-world happening) and be asked to try to make sense of the conflict, perhaps by reanalysis of the data and the circumstances under which the research was conducted and/or the design of a third study
  • presented with a simulated commission to design a building intended for a particular function or to create an art installation that will work in an unusual space

There are many other possibilities. The scale of these problems can vary; some might be designed to require part or all of a single class session, whereas others might be designed to require weeks of effort or, perhaps, the entire semester. However long it takes, the goal is to help students internalize and integrate what they’ve learned, apply their knowledge and skills flexibly under somewhat realistic conditions, think creatively, work cooperatively, and understand the real-world implications of what they’re studying.

How to Encourage Active Learning

Because student engagement with coursework translates into learning that lasts, taking stock of the principles and practices that lead to student investment in course material can make a dramatic difference in what students take away from a course.

Georgetown Professor Yulia Chentsova-Dutton encourages students to apply principles of cultural psychology to their own lives.

Making explicit connections between course material and students’ lives outside the classroom enables them to engage more deeply with the disciplinary content and become invested in it. When students recognize the value of a course and can see concrete examples of how it connects to a bigger picture, they are better equipped to appreciate the abstract concepts and better able to learn the material.

One possibility for actively engaging learning is assigning students projects, including community service projects, that engage them in the local community, experiencing local resources and conversations. Drawing links between academic material and their local milieu can make the classroom and the community more meaningful to students, and incorporating relevant volunteer projects can enrich class discussions and student projects. Community-based learning is a key part of the Georgetown experience as part of the university's mission to educate “men and women for others.”

Another way to increase student engagement is to ask students to reflect on their learning and make integrative connections across courses and disciplines. Building an ePortfolio or keeping an online journal, especially one that encourages students’ sense of ownership, can help inspire students to invest time and pride in their work.

Many of these strategies for improving student engagement can be viewed as social pedagogies. Social pedagogies refer to, as articulated by Randy Bass, those “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” In social pedagogy, students create work that is visible and meaningful to others—often their classmates but sometimes the world. Students often feel more energized to do good work when they are held accountable for their work (receiving praise as well as constructive criticism) by others, not just their professor.

Caveat: Where Active Learning Can Go Wrong

Active learning doesn’t solve everything in a classroom, of course, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. Common mistakes, according to education researchers Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent, include making a “plunge into active learning with no explanation”; creating too-easy, busywork-style active learning experiences; and demanding immediate student enthusiasm for the activities. See this chapter from their book Teaching and Learning STEM for thoughts on how to avoid these problems.

Additional Resources

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.