Get your students excited about active learning

Get your students excited about active learning

Getting students on board with active learning

So you've decided to take the plunge.  You've heard all the great ideas about active learning techniques used in large lectures and you've decided to move away from a traditional lecture format toward a more active learning classroom.  But a nagging question remains: how will I win the students over to this different style of teaching?

The students, accustomed to the traditional lecture for years, may not be as enthusiastic about active learning as you are.  You might even anticipate complaints like, "All I want to do is just show up to lecture and be told what I need to know," or "All you're doing is monitoring us work on problems in class--that's not real teaching."

Tips from Eric Mazur

Eric Mazur, physics professor at Harvard, discusses his approach to this problem in his classic book, "Peer Instruction: A User's Manual".  The solution, he says in essence, is to motivate what you're doing early and often. 

  • First, he makes it clear to the students, starting on day one, that he will not be lecturing from the textbook or his lecture notes.  He draws a parallel to other disciplines: "[If] I lectured not on physics but, say, on Shakespeare, I would certainly not spend the lectures reading plays, [but discussing and deepening your understanding of Shakespeare]."
  • Second, he hands out an introductory questionnaire about the class, with questions such as "What do you expect the lectures to do for you?"  In the next class session(s) he spends sufficient time to directly address misconceptions the students have.  He might say, "The most serious misconception I encountered is that the lectures will present and explain the fundamental concepts, while the book will clarify the ideas presented in lecture.  This is not what is going to happen.  You will be reading the material before coming to class.  The lectures are intended to challenge your further and deepen your understanding...and to show you how things fit together." 
  • Finally, he makes students accountable for preparing before coming to class by giving a short reading quiz at the beginning of each lecture.  Quiz grades count as a small amount of bonus points in the final grade.  He also makes it clear that exams and homework will cover all the material in the assigned reading, not just what is covered in class.  And his exams/homework reflect that.

A similar approach to that last point is to have participation in the active learning exercises actually be included as part of the final grade, but at low stakes so the students are not overburdened with getting the correct answer every time. 

A Stanford example of active learning

In the Chem 31 series at Stanford, senior lecturer Jen Schwartz Poehlmann employs this method of making the students accountable by having them answer clicker questions in her lectures. 

The clicker questions are included with the homework assignments as part of a bucket grade.  Clicker questions are worth ~70 points out of 230 possible "bucket" points.  To make those questions low stakes and to allow flexibility, a maximum of 200 points is awarded and any extra points are discarded.

Try these strategies to help your students get on board with the goals of your new active learning teaching style.  Yes, you need to prepare thoughtfully and carefully, but if you take the necessary steps to motivate why you're using the techniques you do, you may soon find your students more engaged than ever before.

Bob Rawle is a doctoral candidate in Chemistry at Stanford.