Active Learning: Let’s DO This

Students from Prof. Rosales’s English 50 class engaging in a “text-mapping” activity

[Lecturing] is tradition. It was part of my training, and seems like what I should be doing. I feel somehow guilty when I am not lecturing

– One professor’s response when asked why he lectures (qtd. in Bonwell and Eison 7).

I’ll be the first to admit that when I first started teaching, this quotation above could have been from me. I spent years in classes and seminars with professors in their sharp-looking corduroy coats with patches on the elbows, who spent hours talking at us as we furiously scribbled down every third word. So, naturally, when I started teaching, I assumed I should do the same. Sure, I peppered in some group work and discussions, but mainly it was a “Here’s what I know, now listen and learn” type of class. 

FORTUNATELY, a few years into teaching, one of my colleagues staged a “lecture intervention” on me and introduced me to a variety of active learning techniques: some from reading apprenticeship workshops, and some from acceleration workshops, all of which were very exciting, but also a bit overwhelming at the time. These new strategies and techniques forced me to reassess how I thought about learning and what it should look like. Over time, and after much trial and error, these once unfamiliar and overwhelming techniques became the norm in my classes, and I found myself automatically planning for what students would DO in the classroom rather than just what they would learn.

The test of a good teacher…is, ‘Do you regard “learning” as a noun or a verb?’

qtd. in Bonwell and Eison 10

I think we can all agree that learning cannot be defined as a passive activity. Therefore, we cannot teach our classes using what Paulo Freire describes as the “banking” method of education: students are receptacles waiting for us to open up their brains and deposit knowledge. To illustrate this idea of passive learning to my students, I’ll often compare it to a scene in The Matrix. The classroom exchange usually goes something like this:

So, my friends, we are not passive learners. We cannot learn how to write in the same way Neo learns how to do kung fu in The Matrix. 

After noticing a large number of blank stares, I’ll realize that many of them were born after the release of this film, and I’ll further elaborate on this example (all while trying to hide my utter shock and disappointment). 

Well, what happens is a wire gets shoved into the back of Neo’s brain, information is uploaded and, voila! Neo awakens and confidently claims: “I know kung fu.” Nice. 

Unfortunately, our brains do not work that way. We cannot learn through osmosis and Apple has yet to release “iBrain” technology that uploads knowledge directly into our brains; I mean, we’re at least 5 years away from that…

So in the meantime, in order to help our students learn what we want them to learn in our classrooms, we must engage them in an active process that not only provides them with knowledge and skills, but allows them to practice this in relevant ways. Freire argues that it is not enough to just gain knowledge. We must also be able to collaborate with others to think critically about our world and how we can act upon it — essentially, how we can DO something with what we have learned. 

Thus, an active learning environment encourages this collaboration while also inviting a diversity of ideas through activities like small and full class discussions, presentations, and Socratic seminars. Cathy Davidson mentions that “structuring a way where everyone in the room has a voice and has an opportunity to register an idea, is by far the most effective way to avoid ‘group think.’” 

There are a variety of ways to create an active learning environment that I think will fit any number of learning and teaching styles, room limitations, class sizes, or other variables. I hope that throughout this month in this blog and later at our meeting on September 27, we will be able to share some of the strategies we are using to engage our students in the learning process. I also hope we can address any questions or concerns you may have about using active learning techniques in your classes. As you brainstorm some ideas and evaluate what you already do to create an active learning environment, keep in mind some general characteristics of an active learning classroom outlined by Bonwell and Eison:

  • Students are involved in more than listening
  • Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing students’ skills.
  • Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation)
  • Students are engaged in activities (e.g. reading, discussing, writing)
  • Greater emphasis is placed on students’ exploration of their own attitudes and values
  • Anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing. (2)

If you haven’t read Cathy Davidson’s “Active Learning” blog post, check that out as soon as you can. It’s a quick read and will give you a general overview of what active learning is and how it can look in the classroom. If you’d like some additional resources, I also recommend the following texts:

Let’s start the discussion here! If you could, take a few moments to leave a comment (after the jump!) responding to any of the questions below. Feel free to add information and links to any resources, activities, and assignments you are currently using. 

  1. Can you share a story of a student’s success (or multiple student successes) after using active learning strategies? What was the strategy? Why do you think it worked so well?
  2. What is one of your own “go-to” active learning strategies you use in your classes? Why is this your “go-to”?
  3. What questions or concerns do you have about using active learning strategies in the classroom? 

Thanks so much to everyone who was able to come to our meeting last Friday! Below are the wonderful posters you all created. I’ve also linked the “Active Learning Strategies” handout I distributed that day and the Google slides for anyone who wasn’t able to make it.

15 thoughts on “Active Learning: Let’s DO This

  1. Thatcher Carter

    Thanks, Carolyn, this is wonderful. I love your Matrix reference, and I’m old enough to get it! Going back to a time when none of us was alive, Plutarch writes, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled; it is a fire to be kindled.” I love this idea because it suggests that there is already something inside of each of us that must be awakened, not an empty vessel that’s missing what we need.

    For me, it’s so important, for all active learning, to connect to the WHY of what we’re doing, so it doesn’t feel like a silly activity or something that is “extra” curricular. I want our work in the classroom to feel important. Because it IS important! Some things I’ve done this semester to connect to the big why:

    Day One: we had a full class discussion about why we wanted to become more confident writers, why we wanted to become more confident readers, and how reading and writing might show up in their other classes and their careers.

    Day Three: Educational Autobiography and Plan of Action In-Class Writing

    1. Write down your personal educational goal. What does success look like? Who’s there? What do you get to say? What are you wearing?

    2. Describe a setback that you will most likely encounter on the path to achieving this goal. Who’s part of the setback? What’s the obstacle?

    3. Now, think about your past experiences in education and describe what helped you succeed or fail. Be SPECIFIC about what in the past has gotten in the way of you being the best student you can be and what has helped you when times got tough.

    4. What might you use this semester to overcome the inevitable obstacles that will get in your way?

    And sprinkled in so far, we have already done speed dating and made posters about the best resources at RCC and the ways to overcome obstacles. I’m hoping that all this groundwork will set the stage for some important active learning in the classroom. Because there’s nothing worse than an activity that takes half the class period and leaves students wondering why we just did that!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. cmrosales

      I really like this idea of making students aware of the “why.” This definitely helps them to become more intentional with their writing and their participation in class. If they’re constantly asking “why am I doing this?” then hopefully they can start making decisions with a purpose and not just because someone told them to.

      Since active learning encourages students to think for themselves, this is a great way of approaching the course at the beginning of the semester. Thanks for sharing your ideas, Thatcher!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your interesting article and willingness to share your teaching evolution.

    In order to get students comfortable with writing, I have them do quick writes in class on a regular basis in response to something we have been discussing or working on. Since many students are able to write well once they reduce their distractions, to start this process, I have them write a breakup letter to a bad habit that will get in the way of their academic success. They did this activity last week in class after we discussed Step 1 in 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less) by Thomas Frank. I told them to refer to the bad habit like a person, and they wrote creative breakup letters to Procrastination, Netflix, and Family Drama, among others. One student wrote a breakup letter to Depression, and I hope that the act of writing about kicking Depression to the curb will help the student do just that. The students all wrote a well-developed paragraph and–most gratifying to see–seemed to have fun doing it.

    Today in class we continued our work on Essay 1 due next week. After discussing what goes in the introduction, I asked them to take out paper and write two or three sentences just setting up the topic, writers, article, and so on. I compared the activity to a chef assembling the needed ingredients for a dish. What is needed and in what order? Some students had already started on the process since they had read the prompt given to them the class before–yay–and brought some work that my SI and I could look at while the other students wrote their sentences. After a few minutes, several students began asking us to check what they had put together. By making this a brief writing activity in class that all students could achieve, I was hoping that they would then leave motivated to work on the essay instead of putting it off to the night before. When I returned home today and checked my RCC email, I already had three emails from students asking for help with their thesis or use of quotes–on a Friday afternoon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. cmrosales

      That’s amazing, Lani!

      I like how you give your students tasks to do in bits in pieces. “Write two or three sentences” to begin is much more manageable than “Go home and write a draft of an essay.” I can imagine students thinking, “I can do 2 or 3 sentences” and then once that mental hamster starts running, those 2 – 3 sentences can develop into more ideas. Sometimes it can be hard to get the to DO something with their essays, so encouraging some of that “doing” in the classroom is super helpful.

      In case any of us (like me) want to incorporate something like this in our classes, I have a few questions: During this activity, do students consult with each other as well? Also, about how long do you give them to write in class for an activity like the breakup letter (which I LOVE) and the Essay 1 beginning sentences?


      1. For the breakup letter, I did not have them share with classmates because they did this activity the second week of the semester, and I did not know yet where they were in terms of how comfortable they would be sharing not only their writing but their issue. I did, however, put what they broke up with on a poster the following week so that they could see that eleven classmates also sent procrastination packing. I gave them about ten minutes to write the letter, and I made sure to point out to them when I returned the letters that they created a rather creative and polished paragraph in that time. When students write in class free from their smartphones and other distractions, most typically produce decent writing. The beginning sentences activity was about a half hour, and they were free to share with/seek help from classmates. My SI and I also walked around helping.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Audrey H.

      I agree with Carolyn. The breakup letter is such an awesome idea, Lani! I am covering Frank’s text next week, and I would love to use that! It’s an effective activity because it allows students to use all three types of thinking: creative, analytical, and reflective.


  3. Denise L Kruizenga-Muro

    This semester, I am trying to incorporate active learning strategies into some of the workshops I’ll be teaching in the WRC. For example, I taught one last week on decoding a paper prompt. First, I asked students to think about paper prompts they had had in the past that were challenging or confusing for them. Then, I had them take one minute to write down on a note card what made that particular prompt challenging or confusing. Then, they shared out to the other workshop attendees in a form of think-pair-share. Then, I did a very short lecture and we worked through one prompt together using a list of questions they should ask themselves about all prompts, so I was modeling for them what to do while they called out answers. Finally, they worked in pairs to decode a second prompt on their own. We reviewed their responses at the end.

    I liked how interactive this was. There was very little of me lecturing and a lot of them calling out answers or working together to figure out a second prompt on their own. I was trying to incorporate AVID strategies, which are much like what the book Active Learning talked about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cmrosales

      I’m so glad you’re giving a workshop on decoding a prompt! I can imagine that many students, especially in first year comp, may be looking at writing prompts as a foreign text, and to many these are foreign texts that truly needs some translation.

      It’s great how you guide students through the process while still allowing them to experiment and discover answers on their own. This gives students a sense of ownership in their learning, which is an important part of active learning. Thank you for sharing, Denise!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Audrey H.

    I really appreciate the emphasis on active learning strategies in adult learning because it’s empowering and more attentive to the needs of adult learners who have the understandable desire to make direct connections of how gained knowledge can be applied to their lives and social roles. I think this relates to Thatcher’s comment of connecting to the “why” of what students are doing. In order to address that, I have tried to be very conscious in prompting self-reflection in students’ activities and how material relates to their lives.

    For instance, this semester in Eng 1A, we have examined Dweck’s notions of a fixed/growth mindset in conjunction with neuroscience and some basic principles of neuroplasticity so that students can see how learning is a powerful tool for literally restructuring the brain to bypass barriers to their success, such as egocentric thinking or deterministic views of their abilities. After reading an article on these topics where they are encouraged to annotate, I ask them to construct a reading log together where each group (3-4 students) chooses from their annotations an important quotation from the article and writes it on poster board, along with a short analytic response. Students then share and work together to construct a “critical question” on another group’s poster board. This critical question usually refers to something in the text that they want to know more about or that was not clearly addressed in the article. It must be a question that is not easily answerable and makes a person think critically. After a dialogue about these critical questions, students write in their reflective journals where they have an option to respond to the day’s topic regarding something they learned, something that was interesting, how they might apply the topic to their life, or even about something that made them uncomfortable.

    I like this structure because it places a lot of the responsibility on students to take control and actively feel a sense of ownership over their learning process. After critical analysis, they reflect on the contrast of old and new knowledge through writing (hopefully, recognizing how they are improving!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. profhomegirl

    I love that we are starting off our community of practice with active learning. I know this sounds silly, but isn’t that what learning is…active? The best learning happens when there is a melody of organized chaos. My favorite classes both in undergrad and grad were when we were invited to share with each other and write on the board, not sitting in our seats being talked at and lectured to. My favorite instructors were those who asked the students to take part in the learning process; they turned their students into practitioners. I am a kinestheic learner, so I learn and do my best when I am doing something and not just sitting. I need to be a participant and not an observer to get to most out of my experience and education. And I think that is why I tell me students I am not a lecturer; I am a talkative busy body who wants them to write on the board and talk and create noisy but productive chaos.

    One of my favorite activities to do in class is the thesis writing exercise:
    1. I break the class up into teams
    2. I give each group a giant post it note with a marker of their choice (they fight over colors)
    3. I give them a prompt to provide a thesis for
    4. Each group must come up with a thesis and then give to another group
    5. The next group and each subsequent group must provide topic sentences based on the prompt
    6. If they do not feel the prompt is viable, they can opt to wordsmith it, or scrap it altogether.
    7. After two or so rounds, the originators get their paper back to see the results.

    Students love this exercise because it gives them a chance to show off their writing skills and help others who struggle while at the same time allowing the struggling students an opportunity to see how a thesis and topic sentences are written. They also love it because they get to see the importance of the thesis.

    Another activity that I find fun to use in class is Taboo. Now while I cannot and do not play Taboo at home, I find it enjoyable to watch my students try to describe to their classmates the words on the card. If you have never played Taboo, the object of the game is to have your team guess the word on top of the card without saying any iteration of the related words on the card. This is a great exercise because it teaches our students how to think outside of the box and get away from what they are used to. For instance, one of the words on the card is Staples. The words on the card you cannot use have to do with office supplies i.e., pens, pencils, erasers, folders, paper, highlighters, and the like. I tell students, do not allow the words on the card to throw you off; think about other Staples like the Staples Center where the Lakers and Clippers play. MIND BLOWN!!

    Just in case you were wondering, I do not play Taboo at home because I am super competitive; therefore, I hate losing. Hence why I cannot watch my Lakers go down the pit of destruction!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. SasquatchEnthusiast1221

    1. Can you share a story of a student’s success (or multiple student successes) after using active learning strategies? What was the strategy? Why do you think it worked so well?

    I used to be a lot more passive with the way I approached readings. I’d assign a reading and then sort of say, “so what do you think?” Once I started transitioning to more active learning strategies, even in literature or Honors courses, I got a lot more depth out of the discussion and breadth of understanding from my classes.

    2. What is one of your own “go-to” active learning strategies you use in your classes? Why is this your “go-to”?

    As silly and overdone as the poster projects and gallery walks sometimes feel, I find tremendous value in making students write something down vs. just talk about it. It helps ensure that students articulate their thoughts in a different way than just discussion alone will.

    3. What questions or concerns do you have about using active learning strategies in the classroom?

    A concern I always have is tyranny of the clock. The trade-off with active learning is always how much time the activity takes, especially when trying to cover a lot. I have to make serious calculations about the use of time resources through activities like this, and it often involves cutting the number of readings (quality of understanding > number of pages) because it takes so long to get through activities. I also think there’s a point of diminishing returns sometimes with activities that involve a lot of moving around and instructions, and occasionally the complicated instructions of an activity can overshadow the learning I’m trying to stimulate. I always try to find a good balance of simple and effective active learning.

    – Dan

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Wendy S

    Hi Folx, I’m jumping on in! Carolyn, thank you for your share, and for getting us started on this conversation around active learning. I, too, appreciate the Matrix reference, as I am, I think, just old enough to remember it (yes, yes, I am Millennial).

    When thinking about active learning, I like to tell my students at the start of the semester that I am their Yoda—I will not tell them exactly what to do to become an effective writer (Jedi), but I will guide them on their journey as they discover within themselves what they have to do to be effective writers (Jedi). I’ve been considering positionality more in my classroom, so it is important for me that students understand that I am only in the front of the room because I know a little more about reading and writing than them, but if the class was on, say, car repairs, or math, or painting, one of them would be teaching, not me. In this way, I being to relinquish power to become part of their learning community, as opposed to being the “leader” of it, while they begin to gain more of that power.

    In my classes, students do a lot of the teaching. When I began teaching, this concept would have given me an anxiety attack (I still have them, but not about this) because I started teaching at 22. I was very insecure about how young I looked, and I wanted to assert my authority in the classroom. Now, I recognize the value in giving up some of that power for the sake of active student learning. When student are at the center of what we teach, we have to trust that they are capable of anything and everything. We also have to trust ourselves enough to know that we can be the guides they need.

    I truly believe teaching is the best learning tool. I had zero knowledge of grammar when I started teaching, but as soon as I had to teach it, boy did I start to learn it. For this reason, I often ask student to teach each other different concepts from readings. We sometimes just discuss the concept, other times we get into groups and each group will teach the class about a concept, other times they do visual metaphors to talk about a concept, we do think, pair, share, etc. When we do these activities, students not only feel the responsibility of educating their peers, but they collaborate to fully understand what they need to teach, they share examples from their lives, they ask me questions, and they learn at a much deeper level than they would have if I just summarized the reading myself.

    I also like to play this game called Grammar Guru, which I began using to practice grammar, but have since evolved it to be about anything we need it to be. Basically, students get into teams and come up with a team name. They each get a white board and a marker, and I show questions on a PowerPoint. I might also show sentences that they have to correct, if we are talking about grammar, or perhaps sentences that have incorrect MLA source integration examples, etc. Each team earns points for every question or sentence they get correct. This is really fun because it can take place of a quiz assessment. Student get to work together, they get to show me what aspects of what we are learning they understand or don’t understand, they get to learn every round because we go through each answer together, and they enjoy the light competition. It is really amazing to watch them teaching each other about certain concepts, trusting each other, and building community.

    For me, active learning involves student buy in, and we can’t get student buy in until we get to know who our students are, how they learn, and what they need from us. Part of this comes from the transparency that Thatcher mentioned above. Other parts of it come from integrating student ideas and voices into what we do. I purposely don’t choose all my texts for the semester before I meet my students. I want to see who they are, so I can then cater to their interests as much as possible. If I can find texts they care about, not just ones I care about, they will be more actively engaged. I value their input, and I ask them what they want to read about, what they want to learn, what skills they want to practice, etc., and I implement those ideas into the class. I’ve come to learn that many students DO know what they need to work on, and if we have conversations about that and trust them, then we can shape their success together.

    On the first day of class I do a graffiti needs assessment, where I put 4 statements up on large post-its around the room:

    1) In the best class I ever had, the teacher…
    2) In the best class I ever had, the students…
    3) Students make learning difficult when they…
    4) Teachers make learning difficult when they…

    Student go around the room and fill in the blanks to all of these, and then we have a conversation to create community norms and to set their expectations of me. I want to know what works for them, what doesn’t, and what they expect from me, so they can hold me accountable in the same way I’ll hold them accountable for what is in the syllabus.

    Lani, I love that break up letter idea. Star, I also love the idea of the post it thesis + topic sentences, and playing taboo. Today we did in a freewrite in class to introduce rhetorical analysis where students had to ask a fictional character out on a date (Hermione Granger or T’Challa (aka Black Panther)). They then had to get into groups and decide whose offer was MOST convincing. Ya’ll should have seen them constructing these arguments. One student who has never read the books started doing research on his phone and brought all kinds of Harry Potter lingo in to convince Hermione to date him. It was amazing and so fun. I think another aspect of active learning is this: applying the skills they learn in class to practical or “real life” situations, in a fun way.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. profscottcoe

    I am really enjoying following this thread! Carolyn–thank you for the post to get our brains going and for all of the engaging contextual links. I love Cathy Davidson’s navigation of how each of us performs our “role” as faculty in the room before/during/after active learning, recognizing the intersecting factors of faculty identity and mindful of research on student perceptions/projections about our bodies in the room: “If you are a faculty member of color or a woman of any race, there are additional reasons why to take the lead in the meta-cognition/reflection exercise. Students (and not only white students) might assume you are not an authority rather than that you are so much of an authority that you know the best way for them to learn. (We have research on students’ different responses to faculty of different races and genders.)” Curious what you all think!? How can and do each of us model and honor ways of creating “authority” in the room without replicating “authoritarian” examples?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. To meet this active learning goal, I try to remember the value I hold, which is my belief that the knowledge is already contained in the student (the actual knowledge or the means to it) and my role is to let that wisdom come forward. It also means I need to have extraordinary patience and recognize not all thirty plus students will be active in the same way, or at the same time. When I remember these, I can get that beautiful moment when a silent student speaks up in class week 10 for the first time. Then for the second time in week 15…

    Great ideas here too, as I often fear my lessons will become boring or stale with repeated uses, I’m grateful for the variety.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Rob H

    This has been such a productive thread; there are so many wonderful ideas at this point. I will try humbly, to add one or two more. 🙂

    Can you share a story of a student’s success (or multiple student successes) after using active learning strategies? What was the strategy? Why do you think it worked so well?

    I have always found that creating workshops where the students help each other and being flexible with the time allowed for, and how the students use, those workshops works well for student success. In addition, once I have figured out each student’s writing strength (they all have writing strengths), pairing them accordingly. At this point, it’s an old technique; it’s not flashy, but it’s tried and true and it really works in not only improving students’ reading and writing skills, but actually empowering their sense of self.

    What is one of your own “go-to” active learning strategies you use in your classes? Why is this your “go-to”?

    In groups, students pulling apart the texts themselves using some variation on this framework:
    Pick a passage to talk about for each category:
    Category 1:
    What passage(s) or sentence(s) confused you? Why do you think that is? What strategies can be used to make them more understandable?
    Category 2:
    Pick one from the following list:
    -Connections between this article and anything we’ve read so far
    -Golden sentence

    Another exercise that is quickly becoming one of my “go-tos” is having each group of students, at the start of class, discuss and then write a thesis for the day’s reading on the whiteboard. At the end of class we then evaluate the theses. My concern with it right now is that I have found that, because it is being written in such a public way, the students can get a little competitive. As a Marxist educator, I have been downplaying this; instead trying to reframe it for them as collective exploration.

    What questions or concerns do you have about using active learning strategies in the classroom?

    I know this has already been said but I too also share concerns regarding the tyranny of the clock.

    Liked by 1 person

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