Active Learning: A Practical Approach to Implementation

It’s likely that at this point I do not need to convince most of you that active learning can be highly beneficial to student learning.  There is a multitude of resources, including HAPS Educator articles, which discuss successful active learning in a variety of classroom settings.  But here’s the thing. With so many great ideas at our finger tips, where are we supposed to begin if we want to implement active learning in our own courses?  

GOALS

First, step back from the swarm of ideas swirling in your mind and reflect on your goals. What are the goals of your course (which may or may not be content-related)?  Your goals should shape the type of active learning exercise(s) you implement. Here’s what the participants at my workshop at the HAPS Annual Conference in May had to say about their goals with active learning:

Participants in a HAPS worskhop (May 2017) described their goals for active learning.
Participants in a HAPS worskhop (May 2017) described their goals for active learning.

 

PLAN

To ensure your efforts are manageable, start with just one or two sessions.  Upon successful implementation of the initial activity, you can build off it, or incorporating additional methods.  Allow enough time to develop the activity, implement it in class, and give yourself time afterward to assess and for providing student feedback if necessary.  Some (or all) of these steps can take a lot of time!

BUY-IN

This can be tough.  Students will sometimes resist the unfamiliar (i.e. not a standard lecture).  Be transparent.  Explain the goals of the activity, and if appropriate, share evidence to support the activity.  Ensure students that it is of the appropriate difficulty level for them and that you’re there to guide them.  Considering giving credit for participation, especially if it’s a regular part of class.  For more on this topic, check out the Cavannagh, et al. (2016) article or this blog post from Bryn Lutes at Washington University.

RESOURCES

Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers by Angelo and Cross is a book that will walk you through identifying your goals, selecting appropriate activities for those goals, and it gives you a detailed guide for implementation of the activities and assessment.  Assessment is a critical part of scholarly teaching!  How else will you know if the original goals were accomplished?

Technology.  A simple, yet effective means of incorporating small snippets of active learning into a lecture can be interactive questions.  Similar to “clicker” questions, there are many web-based platforms which enable faculty to easily incorporate interactive questions (multiple formats) into lectures.  It’s an opportunity to give the students practice retrieving informing, as well as allowing instructors to see where students are in their understanding of the material.

Some audience response systems allow students to touch the correct answer on an image, and the data for the whole class shows up as a heat map!
Some audience response systems allow students to touch the correct answer on an image, and the data for the whole class shows up as a heat map!

Low-tech options.  In lieu of all of the apps and high-tech options out there we sometimes forget that a marker board, or pen and paper can be effective tools.  Drawing or writing out a process in a way that is meaningful to students (and maybe incorporating a drawing) is an effective means to promote learning.  Get creative with other materials too!  Pull ‘n’ Peel Twizzlers make a great model of vascular supply, and playdoh, pipe cleaners, paper, etc. can be used to model many different body parts.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of resources available for us to use in teaching, I hope it helps you get started.  Establish your goals.  Pick an activity to meet those goals. Plan well, and don’t forget to include assessment!  Happy teaching!


Cavanagh, A.J.,  Aragón, O.R., Chen, X., Couch, B.A., Durham, M.F., Bobrownicki, A., Hanauer, D.I., & Graham, M.J. (2016). Student buy-in to active learning in a college science course. CBE Life Sci Educ 15(4).

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Adv Physiol Educ 30: 159-167.

Pierce, R., J. Fox. (2012). Vodcasts and active-learning exercises in a “flipped classroom” model of a renal pharmacotherapy module.  American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 76(10): 1-5.


Audra Schaefer is an Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology who teaches neuroanatomy and histology to first year medical students.  She oversee multiple systems-based integrated courses that are part of the first two years in the medical curriculum.  She also conducts educational research, with interests in metacognition, study skills and remediation.

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