4 Ways to Cultivate An Active Learning Classroom

By: Jeremy Haynes

The active learning classroom is the classroom of the contemporary University. We need look no further than the modus operandi of the modern undergraduate student preparing to attend post-secondary institutions across North America in the coming weeks. Each of them likely has access to a public or private computer, an internet connection…and a Netflix account (which they’ve never paid for).

Bottom line, the technological speed of learning these days has already necessitated that students develop active learning habits. The question is: how do we develop an active learning classroom that not only promotes but enhances the skills necessary for being a lifetime student of the modern world.

Many instructors already incorporate active learning techniques into their pedagogical repertoire. But this is ultimately a different animal from the kind of active learning classroom that invests students with practical skills regardless of major or field. Socially and academically university is high stakes, and they are getting higher as the job market continues to flood with bachelor degrees. Financially — it ain’t cheap.

This is a recipe for a stressful environment where the majority of students the majority of the time are stretched five different directions. What this doesn’t give you is increased information recall, retention, or enhanced understanding. To instructors this cacophony of malaise can be both emotionally and physically draining, leaving you wondering if the bulk of the students coming to class to read the latest gossip blog are hoping to absorb the notes through osmosis.

Active Learning Classrooms Will Transform HigherEd

We need an active learning classroom because we need to acknowledge that change can only come by altering the way we ask students to engage with the information. We need an active learning classroom because we need to grab our students’ attention more than the other four courses they are in this term. Even if you don’t care about standing out, you’ll likely enjoy the immense benefits active learning fosters during evaluation.

Below I have assembled a list of what I have found to be the most useful and most effortless strategies for building an active learning classroom. In every instance I put the emphasis on learning the skills for learning the content. At the centre of all of these techniques is the student experience, where the onus of learning is passed from instructor to pupil.

1. Inquiry Based Learning

This is not a new idea. Every time you assign a research paper, a presentation, anything that requires students to go outside the classroom and discover things for themselves fits these criteria. I won’t dwell here since this is probably the most widely used technique; however, there is an opportunity here to add elements that will make your assignments memorable and useful.

The next time you assign an essay consider asking students to utilize a piece of pedagogical technology that they are not already familiar with. Changing the way students do the assignment, even if the evaluation style doesn’t change, means increased engagement and a sense of newness to something that undergrads will do between 2–20 times a year!

Does the library have a microfiche reader? Is the audio and video editing software available through a public terminal? With just a little research you can expose students to new ways of learning and doing research that they can draw on in the future. Perhaps more importantly, asking students to engage new technologies helps to develop the kind of confidence and intuitiveness that will make navigating the modern world easy.

2. Encourage Note Sharing

According to a psychological study, even the best note takers only catch about 70% of the important ideas delivered to them by lecture…undergrads catch about 11%. This is why note sharing is so important. It is not only possible but also common for students to proceed through an entire semester’s worth of lectures and never compare their notes with peers.

Throughout your lecture stop and ask students to compare their notes with peers in near-by seats. Even just slight variations of notes can help drastically increase the purview of everyone involved. Consider having students repeat back to YOU what they thought was most important from your lecture and use that to guide the areas that most frequently go missing.

3. Problem Based Learning

This is one of my favourite techniques, and it’s as simple as it sounds. Give students a problem individually or in groups and ask them to solve it. Tailoring the problem so that what you’re teaching shines through can take some work, but even at the most rudimentary level problem-solving is a beneficial practice.

Problem based learning is a great part of any active learning classroom because it forces students to engage with many different aspects of their learning and untangle, order, prioritize, research, and adapt to the fluidity of problems that come with understanding anything. What’s more, problems help to focus attention on not only the major parts of the pedagogical content but also the interconnectivity and relationships between these parts.

This kind of active learning strategy is great for talking about application of course content and “the bigger picture” of academia in general. As students begin to get a sense of the nuances and intricacies of the problems they encounter, they are able to develop the skills necessary for navigating problems that require choices be made and justified. This kind of confidence can only come from having a more well-rounded understanding of the problem and its finer points.

4. Games

As an active learning technique games are great for building strong connections between content recall and the pleasure centres of the brain. If people are having fun they are more likely to remember the context of their learning and therefore develop stronger mental queues for recalling information when it matters.

Any of the above examples can be deployed in game form. Humans as competitive animals love the concept of “winning,” especially in groups where failure can be shared. Using games to teach is as easy as playing Jeopardy with PowerPoint or as involved as having students respond to a make-believe catastrophe.

Letting Active Learning Change the Game

What all of these techniques share is an emphasis on changing the parameters of the classroom from one where the student absorbs information to one where the student seeks it out and defines its significances.

The most important part of active learning is the opportunity it presents to shift away from binary poles of success and failure. In the active learning classroom you succeed or you learn. If anything holds true, it’d be that there is no instance where energy applied to learning is lost, it simply transforms.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click here.


Originally published at blog.tophat.com on August 4, 2015.

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