Strategies for Active Learning


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Dr. Joseph Pitts and Mr. C.R. Horton


Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, Georgia.

Active learning has been defined as providing opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, write, read, and reflect on the content, ideas, issues, and concerns of an academic subject (Meyers & Jones, 1993). The structure of active learning involves three categories: elements, strategies, and resources. The elements refer to what we do during the presentation (i.e. talk, listen, read, write, or reflect. The strategies determine what we do as a group (i.e. small groups, cooperative work, case studies, simulations, problem solving, or journal writing), The resources might include readings, outside speakers, teaching technology, or commercially produced educational programs.

If you are going to make a presentation to any group, it is important for you to understand the differences between a lecture format and an active learning format. In the lecture format the presenter assumes that the listener knows what is expected, involvement of the listener is selective, and the listener is provided with no feedback until the test. Whereas, in the active learning format the presenter tells the listener exactly what is expected and how responses are to be made. Feedback is almost constant.

There are basically four steps that this presenter takes in planning an active learning lesson. First, set expectations. Since there will be some noise and movement, the students need to know just how much noise and movement is appropriate. Second, establish objectives. The students need to know just exactly what it is you want them to learn during this session. Third, plan activities. This is where an active learning lesson is very different. You as a presenter have to plan activities that will involve the students in learning. During a lecture, they are listening (if you are lucky). During an active learning lesson they are doing. Your job is to determine just what they will do to learn the material. Fourth, determine assessment. How will you determine that they have learned the material? Fun and games are nice but unless you know they have learned what it is you wanted them to learn, that is all it is, fun and games.

During the presentation the participants experienced some of the following strategies:

  • Develop a matrix
  • Create a graphic organizer
  • Write a story to show a concept
  • Make a 3-D model

Participants also learned how to implement the following strategies:

  • Global lessons
  • Discussions
  • Inquiry
  • Guided Discovery
  • Cooperative Groups

It is usually very hard for a presenter to change from a lecture format to an active learning format. But there are some things that help change to come about:

  • Start small
  • Know your teaching strengths
  • Ask for help
  • Expect some failures

The main question we as presenters need to ask ourselves is, How will we know if our active learning strategies are effective? There are two indicators: One, students will demonstrate improved mastery over the subject matter. Two, we will see an increase in attendance, more animated discussions, and better questions from students.

Posted with permission.