Active Learning

Active learning is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different teaching approaches all of which shift the focus from the teacher delivering course content to the student actively engaged with the course content. It includes most any activity that students do in a classroom other than passively listening to an instructor’s lecture.

This teaching approach allows students to purposefully interact with course content while in class as well as interact with each other in structured learning activities. Including engaging activities throughout a class session can prevent students from becoming bored, taking part in off-task activities and possibly being disruptive to their peers.  

Examples of active learning strategies include:

Focused writing assignments to check understanding of course content (1-Minute Paper); Creating an individual summary about a topic, discussing it with a partner, then sharing the pair’s discussion with the whole class (Think-Pair-Share); or

Small group exercises where students apply course content to a real-world situation and work toward a solution (Case-based Learning).

Visit the ABLConnect  (Harvard University) website to find activities and projects along with downloadable materials in a searchable online format. It also has video tutorials, links to valuable technology resources, and academic research summaries to back up various active learning approaches. 

In some cases, active learning strategies can also be used to check student learning or understanding, and these strategies are referred to as Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs).

Additional resources on active learning are at the end of this article.

Active Learning at ISU

Classroom Renovations

CELT is engaged in a number of initiatives related to active learning across campus. One initiative includes working closely with ISU Facilities Planning and Management (FPM) and Information Technology Services to renovate and update existing classroom spaces to accommodate active learning.

A recent collaborative project resulted in updating Gilman 2104. The new classroom features a flexible layout for multiple seating configurations and additional technology designed to enhance student learning. Research shows this kind of seating flexibility can significantly enhance student learning by engaging students in their learning and building positive relationships between instructors and students—interactions that are crucial to effective teaching and engaged learning.

Melissa Rands, doctoral candidate ISU School of Education completed an assessment of the renovated Gilman 2104 classroom. The assessment investigated how instructors utilized the active learning classroom’s design to promote active learning and what impact the design had on student learning from both students’ and instructors’ perspectives. The findings from this research serve the dual purpose of providing evidence on the use and impact of classroom space on learning, and will help inform decisions on classroom designs that promote active learning strategies.

This seminar was presented by Melissa Rands on March 5, 2015.

The renovation and evaluation of this and other active learning classrooms is part of an ongoing campus-wide evaluation of learning spaces at Iowa State University.

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