As I indicated in my last ER Corner, this week’s column will discuss how to integrate Active Learning (AL) into “traditional” lectures. I will also hold a workshop on this topic at noon on Wednesday, November 2. See below for a link to information about the workshop and how to register and attend in person or online.
Active Learning is a collection of teaching strategies that promote learning as an interactive, two-way process. It can include the use of questions, small-group discussion, problem-based learning, and case-based reasoning. When this is done in large groups, it is sometimes referred to as SCALE-UP (from its origins as a way to address critical thinking in large science courses at the undergraduate level), which is why several SMHS rooms are called SCALE-UP rooms. See Education Resources’ AEIS page for further reading on AL and the evidence behind it. So if AL’s benefits are so unequivocal, does that mean we have to abandon the lecture? Absolutely not. AL is not always the “right” approach to teaching, nor are lectures or textbooks “wrong.”
However, I do argue that all good lectures incorporate AL strategies in some form or fashion. In the balance of this article, I will outline five “levels” of AL, from minimal to extensive, that can be integrated into your lecture. The higher the level, the more powerful its effect, the more complex the learning outcomes that can be achieved, and the more effort that is required of the instructor and students. The good news is that ANY level of AL will produce significant and measurable learning outcomes.
Level 1. This level is based on research that shows that the attention span ranges from 8 seconds (continuous attention) to 20 minutes (intrinsically motivated attention). The consensus is that our learners can manage 10 minutes of attention without a “reset” of some kind. From this arises the 10–2 strategy: talk for 10 minutes, break for 2. What you do during those breaks is up to you, but even waiting for students to finalize notes and, hopefully, ask questions, is highly effective and requires no extra preparation, making Level 1 possible for anyone to achieve.
Level 2. Level 2 is an enhanced version of Level 1, in which you use questions before, during (the 2-minute breaks), and/or after the lecture to gauge student learning (how well they truly understand what has just been covered) so you can adjust your lecture on the fly or provide guidance to your students about what you think is most important.
Level 3. Level 3 is a further extension of Level 2, in that you use response systems like Turning Point® to ensure student anonymity of responses, which increases participation across the entire class. This gives you more information about class knowledge and ensures that all students benefit from question contemplation AND committing to an answer (research shows that the act of committing to an answer results in better learning than sitting on the fence).
Level 4. This level requires more of you in terms of planning and more of your students during class but is still easily managed. Here, you present a question that requires more than a yes/no or multiple choice answer (e.g., a case to diagnose; an example to apply the tool you just lectured on) to the students in one of two ways. With the first strategy, called “Fishbowl,” you have one group of students (often with support from or participation by you) model the process of answering the question/addressing a case as a group while the rest of the class watches the interaction, with pauses and analysis by you as needed. It is a form of vicarious learning (along with modeling and debriefing), which research has shown results in nearly the same outcomes as full participation. With the second strategy, “Jigsaw,” you place all the students into groups (no more than 8 per group is best). Each group independently solves either the same problem or different aspects of the same problem. You reconvene the class after the process to debrief each solution or to integrate and synthesize each group solution.
Level 5. This level is the most complex and thus the least easily conveyable in the space we have here. Suffice it to say that Level 5 is akin to what is sometimes called “the flipped classroom,” in which you direct students to learn lower-level outcomes (e.g., verbal information, facts, and definitions) through outside readings and materials you provide, and then you use the live class session for complex, higher-order application questions under your guidance. This level requires a significant amount of work on your part and an adjustment period for your students, so it should be reserved for the most complex outcomes—those not easily achieved through other means.
All five levels are in use right now in our building by your own colleagues in different programs, so you can be assured that you can do so as well. Your students will learn and retain more and, with practice, you will find that the process is rewarding and even liberating in some ways; it is a lot more fun to be the architect of learning than it is to be deliverer of information! If you want to learn more about and gain practice in each of these levels, come to the AEIS workshop on AL November 2. For more information on attending this workshop in person, participating live from another campus, requesting a workshop on your campus, or to set up a consultation with Education Resources for teaching or education scholarship assistance, contact Shae Samuelson at (701) 777-6150.