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Creating Active Learning Classrooms

Fostering interaction, conversation and collaboration
University Business, November 2016

A variety of recent studies have shown that active learning—engaging students through activities, discussion and collaboration—is more effective than traditional lecturing, and can even result in better exam performance and reduced failure rates. Technology often plays a significant role in the active learning classroom, by providing real-time feedback, improving information retention and promoting meaningful interaction between an instructor and students.

In this web seminar, attendees learned some key strategies for implementing student response technology from a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who is using the REEF platform from i>clicker to create highly engaging active learning environments.

General Manager, i>clicker
Vice President, Macmillan Learning

We are keenly focused on the topic of active learning and interested in supporting the efforts of faculty and administrators who want to incorporate active learning into higher education. We’re also interested in helping students take a more active role in their own learning and develop higher order thinking, and our mission is to develop tools to accomplish that.

There’s a growing body of empirical data that shows active learning is much more effective than traditional lecturing. One of the most interesting studies is from Scott Freeman and his colleagues, out of the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They did a meta-analysis of 225 previous studies comparing student outcomes in STEM courses that used only lectures, versus those that incorporated group problem-solving, use of clickers, workshops or other forms of active learning.

They found that students in active learning environments scored 6 percent better on exams than their counterparts did, which would roughly translate from a B+ to an A-. But even more interesting is that students who were in lecture-driven sections were about 1 1/2 times more likely to fail than their peers in active learning environments. About one-third of the students in a traditional lecture section either withdrew or got an F or D, compared to about one-fifth of the students in active learning approaches. Freeman also said their findings held across all STEM disciplines, in all sorts of class sizes and course levels.

Common obstacles
There’s a question among active learning activists about why the approach is not more prevalent and why it hasn’t caught on beyond a small percentage of the teaching population.

First of all, I think it’s not easy for many instructors. The research is rather distributed, it’s fairly segmented, and it’s not organized across all disciplines. In terms of broad academic research, there isn’t a well-organized repository. Beyond the research, a lot of educators say that active learning can be very time-consuming, it takes a lot effort, and doesn’t necessarily impact an instructor’s work toward tenure or lead to a promotion.

Another obstacle prevalent in the research is that students may resist switching to active learning, for a number of reasons. They may have a poor image of themselves as learners, they may be uncomfortable with the different format, or they might not understand the purpose of it. And frankly, it requires a lot more work. A key obstacle to overcome when creating an active learning environment is encouraging students to engage with their own learning.

As an education technology company, our goal is to make this easier, and to connect people who have had success in creating active learning classrooms with people who are interested in transforming their own classrooms to be more interactive.

Professor of Physics and Astronomy
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

I have been working with student response systems for 15 years, as part of my effort to study how I can better engage my students—in large physics lectures, in particular—and get everyone to participate. As they say, education isn’t a spectator sport. I want to engage them, challenge them and promote their thinking.

Just asking questions of students limits what responses you receive. If you ask a question and four students answer, it’s only those four—you are not necessarily getting the people who you need to engage, who might need a little more support, and you are not forcing them to participate in a way that’s productive for them. One of the things I do often is ask a question and take a poll. I look at those answers and can discuss them with the students, and I make sure that they all know the answer when we’re done, and if they got it right or wrong. They can then help themselves learn by knowing if they got it right, or if they got it wrong, they can make a note or can come see you later.

Active learning in practice
With my active classroom, I model the behavior that I want to see outside of the classroom—look at a problem and don’t just answer, but turn to your neighbor and discuss it. If somebody next to you is getting it wrong, it’s a great chance for the person who actually knows what’s going on to be able to take that next step and help the person who doesn’t understand it.

Students will push back initially if you don’t give them the context of what you’re trying to do in an active classroom. So one of the things that I always say is that the more you familiarize yourself with the language,
the more you play with the language, the better off you will be when you’re sitting in your dorm room or in the library later and you’re trying to work through a problem by yourself.

Sometimes active learning helps the students realize that they’re not the only ones who don’t know something. You can show that 30 percent of the people aren’t getting this, and people feel that they are part of a group that needs to get better, instead of looking at themselves as a failure.

This can also help the professor. If I’m lecturing and I ask a question and the correct responses are at the 30 percent level or worse, I know that it’s probably something that I’ve done, and I can determine right at that point how to fix it. The active learning environment is giving me feedback on not just the two or three people who are always raising their hand, but on everyone in the class. It helps me understand what they’re all getting from the experience in that classroom.

It’s important to be consistent in selling active learning to your students—relaying what you are trying to do and how you’ll all make it happen. If you do that, a couple of weeks into your semester they will buy into it.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, visit 

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