Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Last updated: 13 mins ago

Rawn: Is “active learning” in the classroom helping you learn or wasting time?

File photo Geoff Lister/The Ubyssey

The other day I said to my class, “Please turn to the person next to you, and together come up with an example of a time when you or someone you know experienced classical conditioning,” a concept which I had just described.

Many students enthusiastically took advantage of this learning opportunity. But as I looked around the room, some students were checking email, some students were talking about other things, and others were simply staring blankly into space. I thought to myself: why aren’t more people taking advantage of this chance to study? The midterm is next week! This experience prompted me to think (again) about why I ask students to engage in particular activities on their own during class – and I thought you might be interested in knowing, too.

Why do I ask my students to do things like this? Because it works. The broad framework of what’s called “active learning” has taken higher education by storm over the last decade or two. Every time I ask students to discuss ideas and problems with people around them, participate in demonstrations, privately write a summary of what they just learned or engage in a team test, I am using some of the techniques of active learning.

There are dozens of examples of studies that have compared courses or topics that use active learning approaches to those that don’t. The specifics differ by course and discipline, but the message is clear: active learning results in improved student learning, relative to traditional lecture format. Granted, not just any activity will do; those that are tied to specific, measurable learning objectives are best. My teaching practice is far from perfect in this regard, but I strive for such synergy daily among my in-class activities and learning objectives (and assessments too, but that’s another story).

So why is it that some students choose to take advantage of active learning techniques in the classroom, and others sit idly? Maybe the idle students are idle when I’m lecturing too, but I just don’t notice as much. Perhaps some students are unmotivated by the task or are failing to take care of their physical health and therefore zone out. Okay. But I think another part is not realizing just how valuable those active learning opportunities can be.

Based on research from cognitive psychology, I suspect that active learning works because working with the material promotes recalling it, which strengthens memories. It can also help people attach new ideas to existing memories, so the new ideas stand a better chance of being recalled and perhaps even applied in new situations. By taking five minutes to think up an example from your own life of a concept — like classical conditioning, if you’re in my intro to psych class — you will remember it better than if you didn’t. Even if you’re tired or uninterested or thinking about your weekend plans or otherwise don’t feel like participating in active learning, remember that. Learning is challenging. It takes work on the part of the person trying to learn.

On the first day of each of my courses, I warn my students: I’m here to create conditions in which you might learn, but I’m not going to guarantee anything. You must make the choice to learn. And that’s what it comes down to. It’s your choice to waste your time or to help yourself learn.

Catherine Rawn is an instructor in the psychology department at UBC. Front of Class is a series of columns on post-secondary policy from UBC students, professors, instructors and administrators. If you’re interested in writing on this topic, email coordinating@ubyssey.ca with your ideas.