Getting started with active learning

Maybe I need to use the outdoor facilities for this

This coming weekend I get to travel to the exotic location of… my former place of employment. A full 5 minute walk from my house.

The institution is hosting one of the Doctoral Training Academies run by UACES, the UK’s European Studies association (in which I declare a very big interest as its Chair).

(I’ll tell you now that I played absolutely no part in deciding the location, but your call whether you buy that or not.)

Any way, the DTA this time round is focused on supporting colleagues new to the job in their teaching duties. I’m running a session on using active learning.

Since there’s no good reason not to share my thoughts with you as well as with them, here are the key points I’ll be trying to make.

Top of the list is putting yourself in your students’ shoes. Often when we talk and think about teaching, we focus on ourselves – what are we going to do and how – but teaching is really inseparable from learning and that’s all about students.

Maybe I was fortunate in this regard that as a student I spent a fair amount of time wondering about what my instructors were trying to do and why it was(n’t) working. A lot of that goes back to the kind of points I was making a few weeks ago about presenting, but it’s a more general issue: if your student doesn’t get what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing because you’ve failed the basic test.

Placing yourself in a student’s position and trying to reflect on how they might encounter your teaching is a cornerstone of active learning, because without this you will really struggle to create an environment that is focused on them (and that’s what makes active learning active).

Next up, practise and reflect.

The beauty of active learning formats is that there are so many of them. The horror is that none of those formats is automatically ‘right’ for any given situation: there is a lot of adaptation and flexibility needed.

In this current case, I have a ballpark idea of what my group this weekend will be like, but until I actually meet them and get more sense of what might be useful for them (it’s that first point again, note), I can’t fully say what I’ll do. As long as I know what message I want to convey (i.e. this blog post), I can try out some things and work from there.

But that also needs me to listen very carefully to what they tell me. You have no monopoly of knowledge as an instructor, just some things you bring to the table that you can use to support students’ learning, so you have to treat them as partners in this endeavour.

And that’s uncomfortable. You have to give up some control over your classroom, because otherwise there’s no space for your students. So you start small, you keep open the lines of communication and you work from there. It’s how I started and it takes time to feel fully comfortable with that, especially as you push into practice that is less familiar.

And finally, enjoy the process. Without wishing to sound like I’ve spent too much time with American colleagues, active learning is really rewarding.

A not-insignificant proportion of the most insightful points of learning in my classes have come from my students.

More than that, almost all the most interesting points of learning have come from my students, precisely because they didn’t come from me. I know what I think about most things, but discovering what others think (and why) is so cool.

And all the stuff I don’t know what I think? Well, that’s often the basis for my active learning sessions. Let’s work it out together.

Again, this is about making students partners in learning, something that they need to become comfortable with as much as you do. Your curiosity (hopefully also your enthusiasm) for that process is one of the most powerful tools in helping them to work with you, because it gives them a sense of your involvement and your openness.

And that’s about it.

Now just to think about how to turn that into a 40 minute session…