Effective Active Learning: The Importance of Sound Pedagogical Design

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Alexandra Mihai.

Active learning refers to a large range of teaching strategies and methods that put the student at the centre of the learning process. From debates and group discussions, to simulations and problem-based learning, this versatile approach has the students’ active engagement at the forefront, while teachers play the role of a coach or facilitator. Fujdiak captures in her chapter a very interesting instance of active learning being employed in an International Security Policy course. Her two goals are to find out what students think about the methods used and to assess whether they were contributing to a deeper understanding of the topic. In order to do that, Fujdiak analyses student feedback from “minute papers”, enhanced by her own classroom observations.

The active learning approach was introduced in the second part of the course. The main aim was to complement the series of lectures from the first part and to get students to engage with the topics, which would in turn lead to a more effective learning experience. For this part of the course the large class was split into three seminar groups of 26 students each and the classes were conducted by seminar leaders, one of whom was Fujdiak. Throughout the six seminars she used various learning activities such as group discussions in various formats, brainstorming, mind-mapping and role play. The chapter contains annexes detailing the activities and their perceived impact, as well as a visual representation of the findings.

By analysing students’ qualitative feedback via content analysis and through her own observations, Fujdiak could draw a few conclusions concerning the impact of her active learning activities.

First of all, students found the student-student interaction very useful and their overall engagement in class increased. Two seminars received mixed ratings: one where the guest lecturer did not employ active learning at all and another one where the activity was not planned very well in terms of timing. This shows that students are very fine observers insofar as the activity design is concerned. Moreover, the more familiar they get with active learning the higher their expectations are, this being mirrored in their degree of engagement with the respective tasks.

In her chapter, Fujdiak emphasizes some of the most important aspects of active learning. In order for this teaching approach to fulfil its main goals, it is crucial to put a considerable amount of effort into class design, with a focus on providing students a clear structure and instructions. Moreover, effective learning activities need to be meaningfully integrated in the overall course design.

It would be interesting to see whether some of the activities would have a bigger impact if they were to take place in alternation with the related lectures, and not in a separate part of the course, somewhat in isolation. As Fujdiak herself explains, this is not always a choice one has; she, like many other early career academics, had to operate within a pre-defined course structure. Her varied active learning activities and her reflective study are a proof that teaching innovation can also occur under rather rigid external conditions. The important thing is to establish clear learning objectives, be receptive to students’ needs and feedback and be bold enough to try out new ways of engaging students in their learning.