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For nearly half of my faculty career, I taught mostly through a face-to-face lecture mode. Yes, I dabbled in simulations and games in some classes, but for the most part, in the last century from 1971 through 1995, I did little to adapt my teaching to enable students to better achieve the most meaningful outcomes. For the most part, those students were able to succeed even though I was using one of the least effective modes of teaching—oral delivery, supplemented by whiteboard. This mode required students to become auditors, transcribing what I shared and translating it into their personal context of background and applicability to their career aspirations.
It is certainly true that many of us enjoy well-formed and responsive lectures that relate well to the audience. They can be great entertainment, as well as fact-filled. It is the fine art of the sage on the stage. Yet this approach has not been proven to be the very best in building retention. As professor emeritus of communication, I know that engaging learners in active learning is superior in retention of knowledge and in applying knowledge to a wider variety of situations.
Learning by doing or simulations—especially through teaching others—has been shown to elicit better retention than merely describing a concept or action. The learning pyramid, sometimes referred to as the “cone of learning,” developed by the National Training Laboratory, suggests that most students only remember about 5 percent of what they hear in lectures and 10 percent from textbooks, but they retain nearly 90 percent of what they learn through teaching others!
“Active learning” is the term we most often apply to the foundational concepts of engaging learners in the process.
Active learning is a pedagogical technique coined by professors Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their 1991 book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. Bonwell and Eison argued that teaching should be less about imparting information to students via lecture-based learning and more about developing skills, while also engaging students in higher-order thinking, whether by reading or writing about the task at hand or by discussing it. Active learning refers to teaching practices that give students opportunities to work with concepts over and over, in a variety of ways and with opportunities for immediate feedback, so that knowledge can take hold in their own minds. (Top Hat)
Active learning activities can involve such activities as role-playing, problem solving, polling, debates, group work, case studies and simulations. Certainly, many aspects of internships, apprenticeships and other on-the-job work can be effective active learning when supplemented with materials or mentorship.
This approach in most cases necessitates that the educators collaborate with the professionals in the field. It is in that nexus between professor and practitioner that is more critical than ever in our rapidly changing world where technologies are driving constant innovation and reinvention. We are called upon to teach for tomorrow in an environment where the rapid development of new products and practices are driven by the scaling of artificial intelligence and digital networking.
A whole host of benefits become immediately apparent when active learning is applied. Perhaps, most important, is that the learning process moves from a one-way “professing” by the instructor to a two-way engagement among the learners and the instructor. It is in this engagement that new ideas and topics emerge, not just from the person paid to teach the class, but also from the learners who bring important perspectives, expectations, ideas, and questions to the process. The Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation describes it this way:
Active learning methods ask students to engage in their learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. In class, students practice skills, solve problems, struggle with complex questions, make decisions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words through writing and discussion. Timely feedback is critical to this learning process either from the instructor or peer feedback from fellow students. Education research shows that incorporating active learning strategies into university courses significantly enhances student learning experiences (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al., 2020).
A key aspect of active learning is the use of authentic assignments and assessments. The Indiana University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning writes, “An authentic assignment is one that requires application of what students have learned to a new situation, and that demands judgment to determine what information and skills are relevant and how they should be used. Authentic assignments often focus on messy, complex real-world situations and their accompanying constraints; they can involve a real-world audience of stakeholders or ‘clients’ as well.”
There are many great websites and online tools to assist in the development of authentic assignments and assessments. Professor John Mueller of North Central College maintains one of them, the Authentic Assessment Toolbox.