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Student Participation: Learning About Active Learning

Students stay interested and learn more from class when teachers use many different techniques to involve them in the learning process. These range from very short and simple techniques, like telling a story about the material, to more involved activities like small student work groups doing collaborative learning projects. Because teaching effectively is as much a process as learning effectively, teachers who are new to the classroom situation often find it helpful first to use traditional learning activities that they have modified, and then to experiment with unconventional strategies once they have established a comfortable rapport with their students. As they establish a hierarchy of active learning strategies, teachers also find it useful to document and evaluate the effectiveness of each activity. Asking students to critique activities places teachers in the role of facilitator rather than dictator.

Active learning strategies serve a two-fold purpose: they make the classroom a dynamic, ever changing environment in which students have a voice, and they allow students to view teachers as people who are flexible enough to take risks in the classroom. Remember that your willingness to take risks in the classroom increases the likelihood of your students doing the same.

While all teachers hope their students will be self-motivated, they soon realize that some need more extrinsic motivation than others. Even motivated students occasionally need their teachers to prompt them to complete learning tasks. Active learning strategies serve as useful educational tools only when all students participate all of the time. Even experienced teachers grapple with the problem of ensuring student participation in classroom activities. One way to combat the problem of students who do not involve themselves in classroom activities because they are introverted or uninterested is to state in the course syllabus a policy concerning participation. A concise statement that defines active learning and discusses how the teacher will evaluate the quality and consistency of participation can help students realize that student participation is an important course goal. However, simply stating that students are accountable for participation is not sufficient; teachers need to monitor their system of evaluation constantly and consistently. Most of the students who at first balk at class participation eventually will accept their role as active rather than passive learners.

In the book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, Bonwell and Eison define active learning as that which "involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing." They list the following general characteristics of strategies that utilize active learning in the classroom:

  • Students are involved in more than listening.
  • Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing student's skills.
  • Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation).
  • Students are engaged in activities (e.g., reading, discussing, writing).