Designing for Active Learning: Common Problems, Solutions & Resources

Concurrent Session 8

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Overheard: “I’m an expert at using active learning. My students tell me so in my course evaluations.” We’ll straighten this out with an active learning building block approach. Come ready to participate and leave with strategies and resources.

Additional Authors

Educational professional with over 30 years of experience leading, supporting, developing and managing integrative learning opportunities for all levels of faculty and students on an International level.

Extended Abstract

Higher Education teaching and learning practices in the sciences have been exploring Active Learning for more than 3 decades. The literature is awash with published articles exploring the effectiveness of the approach over the traditional lecture. Despite many institutions adopting Active Learning as a strategic institutional initiative, the practice varies widely, not only by the degree of application within such institutions, but also in how Active Learning is embraced by faculty new to their role as professors and those faculty with many years of experience. Comments and opinions from senior faculty in one institution express the fundamental challenge facing instructional designers and progressive administrators, such as department chairs and deans, who seek to improve teaching and learning practices:

“Why change my lecture? It works! It’s worked for the last 35 years, so why change it?

“It’s too much work to change my class lectures!”

“I teach using active learning – I randomly ask students about the materials I cover. Then I move on to the next concept. It’s really efficient that way.”

“I’m an expert at using active learning. My students tell me so in my course evaluations.”

The challenge so expressed in these comments suggest:

  • Teaching faculty don’t know how to change their class sessions to take advantage of active learning approaches

  • Teaching faculty tend to resist innovation in their teaching to focus on learning, in sharp contrast to their own research where their full focus is on innovation

  • And most pointedly, it would not be farfetched to state that most faculty, and their students, do not really know what active learning is

Active Learning can be defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process, where students do meaningful activities and think about what they are doing. Active learning can be applied in traditional classrooms, fully online sessions, or in blends. There are many instructional strategies that use most or all of the core requirements of active learning, and we designers use them constantly; however, some of us may not fully commit our designs to encompass complete class sessions using active learning or we may not include all of what is core to the approach: being active (i.e., contributing in class at high levels), recognizing the meaningfulness of what is being learned (i.e., applying facts and concepts in context, where we see the value and purpose), and have multiple opportunities to reflect and use those reflections to improve understanding.

Working as an instructional designer in higher education, we’re often faced with the 2 week design challenge: faculty wait until 2 weeks prior to course start to think about redesigning their course, and then balk that there is insufficient time. Repeat this scenario each semester. What can we do to make this easier on faculty, while slowly moving them from teacher-centered approaches to learner-centered? We define active learning to them, and to their students, and we work with them to slowly integrate these newer approaches or instructional designs. We use simple building blocks, we call activity outlines, to move from passive listening in lectures to active participation.

Here is one sample activity outline that fits an 85 minute class session that we deliver online using synchronous technology.

Outline 1: (for brevity, additional outlines are not included)

Preparatory Assessment (10 minutes)

This activity will test students on their preparation provided for this particular class. It could include short essay (e.g., the 1 min essay) or multiple choice questions covering homework or other activities designed to prepare students for the class. These questions should make students think critically, creatively and apply knowledge. This can also be used as a formative assessment by the teacher.

Use of Polls (can use 1 or more; the point of the polls are to initiate the session with activity relevant to the session objectives and to identify poor understanding of key concepts)

Poll A

Poll B

Introduction (5 minutes)

Unit/Topic/Learning Outcomes (of this particular session): instructor gives an overview of what will be covered in this session, which includes specific learning objectives.

Common Confusions / Misunderstandings / Explanations (10 minutes)

The instructor will have a class discussion and ask students to explain or defend their answers to the poll questions submitted by the students. The point is to uncover common misconceptions and ensure everyone is on the same page. The instructor can involve other students to comment on each other’s answers as well for this class discussion and can scaffold an explanation overall to help students understand the course unit or topic to achieve the related learning outcome.

Activity #1: (Simple focus on new topic concepts) (20 minutes)

This activity can include a short presentation of new conceptual material or build off the common confusions activity. Activity #1 should be a general treatment of new concepts, facts, and/or procedures (etc.). The activity can also introduce instructions for break out group activities. Activities could leverage any of the following samples, or other collaborative, cooperative activities:

  • analyzing case studies

  • playing a game or simulation that facilitates learning

  • modelling a skill

  • analyzing visuals, graphs, audios or videos

  • solving a problem

  • inquiring about a problem

  • working on an aspect of project based-learning

  • working on an aspect integrated in problem based learning

Conduct an activity debrief (for instances when breakout groups are used, a group spokesperson presents the results of their efforts and is prepared to explain and defend results.

Instructor and students summarize the activity.

Activity #2: (Deeper focus where new topics are worked in context) (30 minutes)

This activity differs from Activity #1 because the instructor introduces opportunities for students to leverage what was covered and to apply that into contextually relevant ways. For example, in a finance course, students could be asked to apply mathematical formula to derive a business’s financial stability by exploring a different organization than was previously explored.

If breakout groups are used in this activity, then each group could have different organizations to explore, or different aspects of one organization’s financial profile to examine.

Structurally, this activity could be organized this way:

  • Give an introduction or breakout group instructions

  • Conduct a poll

  • Start and finish the activity or breakout group

  • Hold a debrief

  • Give an activity summary

Wrap-up the class session (10 minutes)

This activity closes the class session. It is important to leave sufficient time to properly end what was covered and allow for students to reflect and share aspects of what they learned. It is also important to summarize what the session covered and then provide what students need to complete prior to the next session.

The activity can be organized in this way:

  • Conduct a reflection poll

  • Summarize the session

To summarize this outline design, the building blocks in this outline can be reduced in this way:

  1. A preparatory assessment (10 min)

  2. A session introduction (5 min)

  3. Common confusions, misunderstandings, and explanations (10 min)

  4. Activity #1 – new topic general treatment (20 min)

  5. Activity #2 – deeper topic treatment, contextually relevant (30 min)

  6. Wrap-up (10 min)

Each of these building blocks can be innovated upon or used to break up a traditional presentation to promote active participation and contribution by students. The latter makes it a more easily integrated design for those situations when an instructor refuses to change the entire session plan.

Building blocks of activities can be organized in different sequences to provide variety. Further, the blocks can be made to fit synchronous, asynchronous, or blended course designs. If an instructor intends to “flip” the session, then we remark that the flip must be designed properly to provide students with the fidelity of what they would experience in an actual session. In ID (instructional designer) language, the flipped portion must include student learning objectives (measurable) where the student can determine the effectiveness of their learning or allow for instructor feedback during the flipped period. This is much more than simply providing students with voice-over lecture PowerPoints prior to coming to class. Students must be active and receive feedback for the flip strategy to be effective.

A good flip is one way to scale up active learning into larger course sections. Prudent use of the active learning blocks and innovating on their design using technology will also support upscaling.

Session Outcomes

Participants will be able to describe active learning and recognize when a course design is not fully leveraging the approach. They will see how we are using this approach in fully synchronous session designs, as well as in asynchronous and blend scenarios. Participants will also receive handouts with several different block outlines set into a few academic disciplines and level (e.g., undergraduate, graduate, etc.) to improve their own course designs. A project blog where these outlines are being published will also be presented together with instructions how to access it --this is to create an opportunity for ongoing dialog on active learning. Finally, participants will be invited to join a working group to author more outlines set to fit different disciplines, levels, and session delivery strategies (e.g., synchronous, asynchronous, and blend).

This OLC Accelerate session will give the audience an active learning experience by using the approach described in this proposal. They will be polled, given an introduction, briefly explore common confusions, and see a course outline as described above. Participants will then take an outline and note how they will use it in their course. Finally, some will be asked to share their plans. The materials and experiences are designed to counter typical instructor opinions and perspectives as earlier described and provide instructional designers and innovative/progressive administrators with resources to make the design work easier. The proposed session is timely and relevant: using learner-centered designs in higher education remains an important target as it is still not common practice in many institutions. This session seeks to improve the situation by adding resources designers and administrators can easily adapt and use.