With spring fever in full bloom and summer practically just around the corner, keeping students fully engaged both in and out of the classroom can be a job easier said than done. One battle-tested approach that instructors might consider incorporating to offset this inevitable “power-down” effect is Active Learning.

“We’re all aware that keeping students fully involved in courses in spring time can be a challenge,” says Dr. Mary Carney, Director of UNG’s CTLL. “Fortunately, there are a number of active learning ideas on the CTLL website that provide fun, interactive, and engaging ways to increase concentration in course materials and during class meetings.”

Some of these activities include clarification pauses, large or small group discussion, peer review, think-pair-share exercises, brainstorming, jigsaw discussion, and, among many others, active review sessions. Each activity, with the exception of Experiential Learning which involves site visits, requires a high degree of student participation in class and has the added impact of building community. View the full list.

In a 1987 article entitled “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education,” A.W. Chickering and Z.F. Gamson articulate, indirectly, that Active Learning is necessary for critical thinking: “Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

As these authors suggest, the practice of activating learning isn’t about passive engagement in which students simply hear or see the material… rather, there must be a component that immerses class participants in the material in a way that allows them to think through issues for themselves and solve problems collaboratively.  In his inaugural address as Harvard’s new president in October, 1869, Charles William Eliot spoke with much prescience about the need for an active mind: “Lectures alone are too often a useless expenditure of force. The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome; but it runs through. A mind must work to grow.”

Dr. Matthew Horton, Assistant Professor of English at UNG, echoes the absolute necessity of this type of learning in his courses, emphasizing that, “It comes down to this: I expect active learning from my students. There is no other kind. We’ll get nowhere in our classrooms, virtual or otherwise, if our students are not the ones doing the thinking. And I have come to believe that my students expect me to let them be the ones who think and to let them articulate what they are thinking. They might even expect me to expect it.”

Dr. Macklin Cowart, English professor and a colleague of Horton’s, adds, “Active learning requires students to work outside the “read, research, write, and repeat process” of traditional academics; as such, students take control of their learning by approaching the traditional method as the starting point in order to focus their research on a more fully developed end goal, something beyond an abstract, impersonal essay.  My students do this in a variety of ways from field interviews with people in the professions they seek, peer reviews, multimedia infused presentations, and tangible projects reflecting a functional aspect of the research.”

Students in Dr. Bell’s English 1102 class participate in a Kahoot during an interactive poetry analysis session.

Two active learning methods I utilize in my literature classes are Interactive Lectures and Active Review Sessions. In one specific part of the curriculum, I screen video clips of predetermined scenes from a Shakespearean performance (Othello or Hamlet) paired with parallel readings from the play; after viewing each clip, students break out into small groups, read the same scene from the play we’ve just viewed, and compare and contrast what they watched with what they read. Their assigned task is to translate “Bard Speak” and the dramatic representation of the language into their own vernacular in an effort to relate personally to the overall themes we have identified in setting up the play.  After about 10 minutes of collaborative, active review sessions, group leaders read the results back, and then the floor is opened up for discussion. After we develop a general consensus on the meaning of each scene, I then ask the groups to generate potential essay questions based on the interpretations that emerged from discussion. This circular progression connects the beginning of the exercise with the ultimate method of assessment and each step in the sequence is predominantly student directed.

Whether they directly hit the actual Shakespearean mark or not, students generally come up with translations that are equal parts insightful, self-reflexive, and sometimes humorous in a way that manages to demystify the preconceived preciousness with which many of us tend to approach Shakespeare. Granted, this may not be a novel approach to Shakespeare or literature in general, for that matter, but by circumventing the traditional model mentioned above by Dr. Cowart, new pathways are opened up that create both budding confidence and a kind of muscle memory in students that can carry them forward in their critical thinking.

As a proponent of Active Learning, I continue to benefit from these exercises and see possibilities I had not previously considered from the conclusions students draw. Ultimately, Active Learning isn’t just valuable to students. Like other teachers who have embraced it, I, too, have become an active and willing participant in a dialogue in which multiple voices are engaging, not just the so-called “voice of authority.”  I’ve found, like my colleagues above, that Active Learning is liberating and rewarding for both student and teacher.

If you’re interested in accessing some of these ideas and activities for your own classroom, read more at the CTLL website.

As always, we encourage members of the UNG academic community to give us feedback in the comments below and make recommendations on articles you’ve read that warrant inclusion in our ongoing Essential Guide to Teaching & Learning.

~David Bell, Managing Editor Teaching Academic