Making Active Learning Work in the Classroom

A math colleague of mine, who blogs under the name Doc Turtle, recently blogged about his use of a calculus worksheet that helps his students “guide themselves through the algebraically intense process of partial fractions.”  Doc Turtle reports that his students look forward to this kind of work, and he’s planning to develop more activities along these lines.

I’ve heard from several instructors who have students engage in this kind of active, self-directed learning in class (through worksheets, clicker questions, and so on) that some students complain that the professor isn’t doing any work.  I suspect that these are the students who expect to come to class, take a lot of notes, and figure the material out while working through their homework.  They can sometimes push back when their instructor isn’t presenting course content in the way they expect.

Of course, instructors who design and implement activities like Doc Turtle’s worksheet activity aren’t avoiding the hard work of teaching.  Instead, they’re being intentional about what they want their students to learn and they’re planning and facilitating experiences designed to help their students learn those things.

As Ian Beatty wrote over on his blog, “It’s not really creating [clicker] questions that’s tough.  The hard part is figuring out what I want my students to learn from the class, and casting that in terms of what I want my students to be able to do.”  Once he’s done that, he says it’s relatively easy for him to write effective clicker questions.  “Just formulate a question asking them to do that (in a particular context), and then much of the class activity is me helping them struggle through the process as they learn how.”

What struck me about Doc Turtle’s post was how excited his students are to engage in this kind of active learning.  As I mentioned above, not all students see this kind of learning as valuable.  Did Doc Turtle just get lucky with a batch of exceptional students?  I suspect not.  I’m guessing that he’s been teaching his students to learn this way since the first day of classes so that by this point in the semester, his students are perfectly willing to see this kind of activity as valuable.  I think that’s an important takeaway: If we’re asking our students to learn in a “new” way, then we need to help them learn how to learn in that way.

Do you find that your students push back when you ask them to engage in active learning in class?  How do you help them see the value in this kind of learning over time?

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