Just What Is Active Learning?

Cultivating that personal myth of superstar teacher will only take you so far.
Cultivating that personal myth of superstar teacher will only take you so far.

Videos of lectures are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for active learning. The classroom is not flipped if the instructor, rather than the student, remains central to the student’s learning process. The more we make students’ learning dependent on something we provide, whether it be didactic classroom lectures, online videos, worksheets, or Socratic dialogue, the more we reflect Paulo Freire’s banking model of education, in which “the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.”

I’ve been reminded of these principles by recent discussions with colleagues, some of whom have concluded that active learning and lecturing in the physical classroom are mutually exclusive. There is plenty of evidence indicating that a lecture, if organized and delivered in a way that engages students,  is just as effective as other forms of instruction. Similarly, an absence of lectures does not automatically make the classroom environment conducive to learning. Assuming otherwise illustrates the prevalence of the Dunning-Kruger effect in academia.

I’ve also been reminded about what “active learning” really means by my university’s evaluation of teaching instrument, which is distributed to students in the last few weeks of every semester.

Nine of the fifteen items on the instrument ask about the instructor (“was knowledgeable about subject of the course,” “demonstrated enthusiasm for the course material,” “was organized and prepared”). Only two items on the survey focus on the student (“I learned a great deal in this course” and “This course helped me become more of an independent thinker”). None of the survey’s questions explicitly address the student’s participation in the learning process. Students are not asked about their willingness to engage with course content, classmates, or the instructor, nor are they asked whether or in what ways they assumed responsibility for their own learning.

I am able to collect some of this information with my knowledge plan and quality of failure assignments. But to get a better understanding of what role students in my first-year seminar think they play in their own learning, and to remind them that the horse led to water must drink of its own accord, I’ve created a Google Form survey that is substantially different from the one used by my university. Here are the survey’s questions, which I score on a five-point Likert scale:

  • Readings, assignments, and discussion were an opportunity for me to learn about the perspectives of people with different cultural backgrounds.
  • Readings, assignments, and discussion were an opportunity for me to learn about multiple approaches to solving problems.
  • Readings, assignments, and class discussion were an opportunity for me to learn about how communities are affected by immigration, the environment, violence, racism, and/or sexism.
  • The assignments in this course were an opportunity for me to practice the skill of communicating accurately and persuasively in writing.
  • This course was an opportunity for me to practice the skill of analyzing and evaluating information.
  • This course was an opportunity for me to learn about my classmates and get to know them better.
  • I believe that I have a _______ understanding of the diversity of human experience because of taking this course.

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