Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What are students and instructors doing in an active learning classroom?

A chart highlighting this very comparison was included in "Dissecting the Classroom," an article published on February 10th in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  I was so taken by the chart's simple yet powerful statement that I even tracked down a printer and tacked the visual to my bulletin board where it has been waiting for months to be shared.  Here it is:

The data comes from two representative classes - one lecture-based and one that incorporates active learning strategies - that are a subset of the larger study conducted by Smith et al. (2013).  The graphic from the published study uses pie charts instead of bar graphs (see Figure 4 from the published article, available here), but the basic message is clear no matter how it is delivered.  In the lecture-based class, students are primarily listening and the instructor is, no surprise, primarily lecturing with an occasional response to a question or a follow up of some kind.  The other class, the interactive/active learning one, identifies a variety of activities for both students and the instructor; students are still listening, but they are also thinking, working in groups, asking and answering questions, and discussing.  Notice that lecturing is still happening in the active learning class too; however, it is mixed with eight other types of activities and it takes a back seat to guiding and discussing with students.

There are a number of additional takeaways and possible points of discussion here.  One is a reminder that "active learning" is a broad term or phrase - it doesn't refer to one specific activity.  Instead, it refers to students being engaged in the learning process because they are actively doing something.  It is ok to include lecture in a class that includes active learning.  (Sometimes it seems as though lecture and active learning cannot be used in the same statement, but this is not the case.)  Lecture can be a useful mode of instruction for certain things, but the key is to use lecture together with other activities.

For those who are interested in how the students' and instructors' classroom activities were tracked, the tracking form and related details are discussed in the Smith et al. (2013) article, published in CBE Life Sciences Education and accessible here, as well as the article from the Chronicle.

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