Active Learning

A common metaphor for traditional teaching describes students as empty vessels which the teacher fills with knowledge. However, the last several decades of educational research have shown that learning is an active process performed by the learner, where each person constructs their own understanding through making connections to existing knowledge and experiences. Teachers can thus best support learning by creating opportunities for students to actively engage with new material and build these mental models for themselves. In other words, what you do is important in a lecture, but what your students do is crucial.

Active learning has many definitions but all include the idea that students are actively involved with the content during class time, by reading, writing, talking, or reflecting. The ‘active’ part of ‘active learning’ refers to cognitive activity and engagement, and not physical or social (although that can support active learning). 

“Active learning” is typically defined by educational researchers as learning that requires students to engage cognitively and meaningfully with the materials, to get “involved with the information presented, really thinking about it (analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating) rather than just passively receiving it”. (Chi & Wylie 2014, 219)

There have been multiple studies that have explored the effect of active learning strategies on student learning gains in undergraduate classrooms. A meta-analysis of 225 research studies showed that when compared to traditional courses, students who were taught using active learning methods performed better on examinations and had lower failure rates (Freeman et. al., 2014). This effect was consistent across multiple disciplines including Physics, Maths, Chemistry and Engineering. Other reviews and meta analyses have found similar patterns (Fagen et. al., 2002; Prince, 2004; Ruiz-Primo et. al., 2011).

In addition to increases in learning gains, active learning has been shown to help promote inclusivity in the classroom. Such strategies have been shown to disproportionately benefit underrepresented and/or educationally/economically disadvantaged students (Haak et al., 2011). Lorenzo, Crouch, and Mazur (2006) also found that while active learning strategies in physics courses improved student performance in general, it had much higher effects on the performance of female students. In some courses where a lot of the learning was supported by active strategies, the gender gap was eliminated. 

There are a number of active learning strategies that you could use to improve your students’ learning gains. However, it would be a good idea to start small, but start soon. Choose some of the easier techniques as you develop your skill and confidence. As you begin to incorporate them, it might also be a good idea to explain what you are doing and why to your students. This will help them engage further with their learning (metacognitive skills) and help build a supportive and engaged classroom. 

In the sections that follow we have discussed some of the strategies that you could use.

A flipped classroom is a hybrid-active-learning strategy. In a flipped class, students are exposed to the content (through readings/videos) at home. During class time they deepen their mastery by applying what they have learned (e.g. through interactive problem-solving). The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most teachers to flip their classes to some extent, using various combinations of pre-recorded, asynchronously available video material and some classroom-type interaction with the students, either remotely or in person.

For many EPFL teachers this was their first direct exposure to the flipped classroom model. However, pre-existing evidence from a variety of studies, including some on EPFL courses, has shown that when the traditional approach is turned on its head or ‘flipped’, and the ‘teacher’ becomes a ‘learning facilitator’, learning outcomes improve. This has been shown in a number of disciplines, including STEM. A recent study at EPFL showed that flipped classrooms could help reduce performance gaps between various demographics of students and thus make learning more equitable. 

Many EPFL teachers have commented that there are aspects of the hybrid learning models they adopted and adapted during the enforced period of distance learning which they would like to keep, as they had a positive impact on their students’ academic achievement.

Choose your strategy to fit your (and your students’) needs. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ model of flipped classroom – there is a continuum between traditional teaching and fully flipped classroom. Careful thought and planning are crucial to the success of a ‘flipping’ experiment.

An important consideration is feedback. Prepare the tools you will need to gather feedback on your students’ progress, as well as the structure you will use to give students actionable feedback.

Watch out for students’ workload. It’s important to plan carefully to make sure students aren’t overwhelmed by the need to prepare, attend ‘class’ and then do homework. Teachers (and sometimes students) may underestimate the time commitment required to follow a flipped course.

There are multiple active learning strategies that can be customised to suit the needs of your particular course. Given below is a non-exhaustive list of some of these strategies:

  1. The Pause: After ~15 minutes of teacher-talk, give your students 2 minutes to review the notes they have taken. Prompt them to note any questions they may have, underline vocabulary which is unclear or add extra information useful for their understanding. The goal is to give students time to actively integrate the new information and to prepare them for the next step. 
  2. Opportunity to pose questions: At specific points in your class, pause and give your students the opportunity to pose their questions. If students seem reluctant to ask a question in class, you can use the SpeakUp app to allow students to ask you questions through an anonymous, temporary chat room. This app also allows students to upvote the most interesting questions posed by their peers. You can set aside a few minutes to address the most popular questions posed by your class that week.
  3. Minute Paper: At the end of each class, ask students to take 1 minute and write their response to a specific question (this could be related to a difficult topic discussed that day, or to gauge their level of information about an upcoming topic). Collecting the anonymous answers provides you with immediate feedback on students’ understanding and the nature of their difficulties.
  4. Interactive Polling tools Clickers: Poll students in real time with small handheld clickers or an app on their mobile device. Use the results presented in automatically generated histograms to stimulate discussion and probe student reasoning. For more information, please visit the dedicated page on Teaching with interactive tools clickers.
  5. Think-Pair-Share: When a question/problem is posed, students first THINK individually (they could write down their response), then they PAIR with a neighbour to discuss and come up with a common response. To conclude, you could ask for a few pairs to SHARE their responses with the class (or with a neighbouring pair). This strategy decreases barriers to participation with built-in thinking time and gives students the opportunity to check and refine a response before sharing. It is a particularly useful strategy when students are non-native speakers.
  6. Worksheets: Constructing a lecture worksheet for students can help them process complex information by having them complete each step at a specific point in the class. This allows them to immediately apply and assimilate the information. Consider if your goals would be best met by having students work alone or with a neighbour, remembering that groups of students can handle more difficult tasks than a single student, and groups will often persist longer on a task.

For further support, consider attending the workshop ‘Effective Interactive Teaching‘ or contacting a Teaching Advisor.

Although students are increasingly using laptops to type out class notes, there is evidence that students learn more when they take handwritten notes in class (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). However, since the volume and complexity of the course content in higher education can make it difficult for students to take handwritten notes, you could encourage this behaviour by providing your students with some tools and strategies. 

  • Provide an outline/framework of the day’s class. Explicitly share the logic that you used to structure the course and provide students with an overview of the day’s class to enable them to organise their notes.
  • Design structured handouts that allow students to add supplementary information, as the quality of students’ notes depends on having sufficient space to write clear, well-organised notes.
  • Encourage students to use active note-taking methods (using their own words, identifying connections between topics, jotting down any questions they have and marking passages that are unclear) rather than passive methods (underlining words or writing down the lecture verbatim).

Introduce students to different note taking systems, such as the Cornell System or mind maps, and encourage them to experiment in order to find what works best for them (Oxford has a nice page presenting several). Different approaches might be more appropriate for certain classes, but developing abbreviations and leaving plenty of space to allow for post-hoc amendments and additions is always useful.