What I Wish I Knew When I Started Doing Active Learning

What I Wish I Knew When I Started Doing Active Learning

For well over a decade, I’ve been studying the science of learning, cognitive neuroscience, research on memory, and studies of pedagogy as well as reading everything I can get my hands on having to do with techniques and methods for meaningful, engaged classrooms.  I’m constantly learning, always trying new things.  Here are things I wish I knew when I started down this exciting, productive, rewarding, and, ultimately, better path for higher education.


1.  Students are as afraid of active learning as we (profs, teachers) are. 

We’ve all had the same traditional formal education and are conditioned to see one-way transmission as the norm…and comfort zone.

Sometimes, students want us to lecture at them, tell them what will be on the final, tell them what the outcomes will be, and then just give them a grade.  Ideally, it will be a high one since they’ve done all the work.  And, no doubt, they’ll grade grub if it isn’t.  I’m no longer surprised at this but expect it.  Just as my colleagues feel “uncomfortable” turning the responsibility for learning over to students, so too do students begin contemptuous–which is to say fearful–that active learning means the prof is getting out of work. It’s only after they see it work, after they see themselves undergoing a transformation, that they realize this is about sharing in the process of learning.


2.  Students always come through (despite their fears).  Trust them.

Whenever I think I’m going too far–letting students design a class, a unit, a final project, an entire class–I worry that I might be going too far.  No need!  In 15 years of doing  active learning, students have never failed me.  Trust them! They have come through far greater than my expectations, they have surprised and delighted me,  in every imaginable setting (middle schoolers at an inner city Chicago after school program or doctoral students at an Ivy League university), and in small groups and huge lecture courses.  Trust students.  Period.

3. Almost nothing about the way we learn in school is “natural.” 

If I really want to learn something outside of school (K-professional school), I never go about it the way one learns things in school. Do you? Think about it?   A driver’s license exam?  I might read the book, take the practice test, see what I missed, read those sections again, take another practice test, and over and over.  I wouldn’t go hear a lecture.  I wouldn’t take a seminar.  Nor would I go into the DMV never having taken a test before and let the one and only test I take be the final determiner on whether or not I’d get my license.  I’d be taking those tests to learn from the process not to earn  a final (summative, irrevocable, determinative) grade.  If I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, I certainly wouldn’t seek out a teacher who would give me an A, B, C, D, or F grade on what I learned over a three month period; I’d want someone to take me from where I was to somewhere more proficient.  If I were teaching my 9 month old baby to walk, I wouldn’t give her an F the first time she fell and call it a day.  Etcetera.  It’s hard to think of any learning situation outside of school that operates the way the classroom operates.  The classroom is about schooling submission to a specific set of rules about how you learn, who you learn from, what counts as learning, who gets to count as “smart.”

4.  The purpose of traditional, formal education is evaluation, not learning.   (And that’s not a good thing.)

The race theorist and poet Fred Moten recently noted that, if you were looking down on education from on high, you would just assume its purpose was evaluation, that its primary function was to show someone with less power how much power someone else was given, institutionally, to evaluate them, to show them their place.  Ouch!  He’s not wrong about that.  It’s the rare school that does what I recently heard is standard at Oberlin:  offer every and any class “Credit/No Record.”  I even heard about an Oberlin student who took every single class this way.  His transcript then became a list of all the classes he had taken that he had passed.   If he wished, he could have supplemented that official transcript with a dozen more courses he had taken simply to “learn something” but hadn’t done the work in, hadn’t “passed.”  (NB: I heard this guy is now in a high-prestige medical school.)

5.  In an active learning class, the preparation is front loaded.

 Active learning takes lots of scaffolding.  You need to take a lot of time thinking deeply and carefully before you then have the right setting where students can take the lead. You have to know not just the content but have to also design learning experiments, maker exercises, interactive experiments, all kinds of ways that students can step in and take responsibility for the course.  Will they be designing the syllabus?  Some of it or all?  Will they be contributing to assessment and helping to determine standards for the course?  Will they be publishing their work on a public website? Each of those takes serious planning and design before the course begins.

Here’s a syllabus my co-teacher and I have scaffolded in advance.  On the first day of class, Prof Eversley and I will leave the room and students will organize themselves into groups, choose topics, and select dates.  During the term, they will develop their topic, assign readings, and come up with a unique pedagogical experience for our graduate class (and, since they are almost all instructors themselves, they will apply it in their own undergraduate classes that week and report back on how it worked). 

This takes a lot of structuring in advance.  We have a private class website on which we will communicate with one another and we have this public HASTAC site where anyone can watch how we build this course and where students will publish work that has been peer reviewed by the class as a whole.  Anyone can join this group. Welcome to “Black Listed:  African American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, and Publication.” 



6. But grading, in general, is a snap.  

Because so much of active learning is “front loaded” and “continual,” with feedback being constant and formative, the “finals” (papers, exams, turning in grades) aren’t much different than what one has been doing all term. Because summative exams and papers are anathema in active learning–because learning is a process, with lots of opportunities to repeat and improve (a friend says all of his active learning classes are “pass/try again”), by the end of the term, a student has a full, rich, carefully evaluated portfolio of work.  The final should be really just an affirmation or confirmation of a process mastered all term.  It’s a snap to evaluate because the evaluating, like the learning, has been happening all term, and with the student’s involvement.  If it is contract grading, the student may even know in advance what that final grade is, assuming they have done all they contracted to do. 

7. A scaffold needs to be steady.  Mechanics are essential.

The first thing I do now when I plan a student-led class is get down all the annoying details of calendaring.  That allows all of us to focus on learning. Nothing stalls a student-led course faster than students trying to figure out when spring break does or doesn’t occur, what “Friday” course is actually on a “Tuesday” one week because of a holiday, and when the guest lecturers are coming, etc.  I learned the hard way that, without taking the time to plot out the semester, students get so confused and flustered with scheduling, they can’t organize themselves creatively into groups.  Now, I buy huge post-it notes and tack them around the room.  If a 18-week course is going to have four project groups, with two classes per group, I put up four posters and include the dates of the two classes.  The other dates are for field trips, speakers, holidays, working sessions, and so forth, things the students need not worry about.  I leave the room and assign them the task of figuring out what group they will be in, choosing topics (I usually give them half a dozen or more options to choose from, modify, or remix, with a few sample, ideal texts for each), and deciding which dates–from those posted–works for them.  They have never failed to design a fantastic course.  But it took those post-it notes and that pre-planning before this became a productive rather than a futile and frustrating (and failed) exercise.

8.  I can’t control everything.  Neither can they.

Someone recently asked me the single biggest difference between a course my students designs and one I might design for them.  I thought about it a bit and said, “Relevance.”  When I design a course, I often think about “representing” the “content” of the “field.”  When my students design a course, they always design one in which, whatever content they choose, it has something to teach them, now, about how to live, now, how to understand they world better, now.  That means that, by the time their project roles around, if something major is happening in the world, they well might tilt their reading of the work to that issue rather than worry about “covering” every aspect of the work.  It’s a far more urgent, exciting way to learn.   And I learn more every time I teach.

9.  Content and coverage aren’t everything.

We have it drilled into us that testable content is the most important thing we do and that we are not responsible and respectable as profs and teachers if we don’t offer “coverage” of the topic.  We brag about a 25-page syllabus or about “too  much reading.”   Stop it!  Everything we know about learning shows us that, when we over-assign, we inspire cheating, not learning.  More to the point, of our metric (as it should be in active learning) isn’t test scores and grades but how one truly learns in a way that is applicable for everything that comes after graduation, coverage isn’t very important at all.  We have over one hundred years of research emphasizing that learning for life is about finding what is relevant and applicable in all the fast array of material covered and finding out how that helps one to understand oneself or the world. 

Going all the way back to the Hermann Ebbinghaus “forgetting curve” experiments of the 1880s, we have known–and replicated in dozens if not hundreds of experiments–the fact that, no matter how serious and responsible and dedicated we profs are to “covering” our “topic,” students retain and apply subsequently only what is meaningful to them.   I like to call this “Haunted by the Eight Percent.”  In experiment after experiment, if you test students with basically matched backgrounds (say, from the same educational institution) who took a big introductory course on a topic (say, “Psychology 101”) six months in the past and other people who never took the course, the differential in test scores is about 8%.  8%! Here’s a variation: Recently, at one of the nation’s finest, most rigorous, and most expensive private prep schools, students were given, with no warning, the exact same exams one September that they had taken as “final exams” the previous May.  The average grade on finals had been A-/B+ (86%).   On the September retests: F. (58%) [Mostly Likely to Succeed, p. 41]  The issue was not that this fine school had failed to do its job but that, when we study for a major summative test, we are basically storing knowledge in short-term memory for that test. High-stakes, summative testing is about learning and forgetting–not about learning and preparing for the world beyond the test. 

10.  Boredom and irrelevance (not laptops) are the biggest source of distraction in any class.

One reason active learning is so effective is because it is, well, active.  It engages attention because students take responsibility for their own learning.  We know coverage isn’t as important as we think it is.  So what does count?  Attention.  You cannot learn if you are not paying attention (except in matters of trauma where life can slap you upside the head when you think everything is going just fine): but that’s a different matter). 

In the classroom, you learn, you remember, what is meaningful. If it is meaningful to you to score an A on the exam, then you learn the material for the exam–and forget about 75% of it (lots of research on this) within a few weeks of the exam being over. That’s how short-term memory works: it keeps what it needs for when it needs it and then discards what isn’t meaningful beyond that point.

Attention is highly selective–but powerful. Basically, what counts for learning is how one enfolds important content into new ways of acting in the world–a new skill that one uses and relies on, a new understanding of a complicated matter, a new approach to problem-solving.  We pay attention, in an educational setting, to what is meaningful to us. In a course, what is meaningful is that which literally grabs our attention and has an impact beyond the class itself.

When we learn something that is meaningful to us, something we know we will need to succeed in our future, something that changes how we think or act in the world, something where we actually apply knowledge to a real-life experience or by making something or by doing original research and finding an important conclusion . . . in those situations (all “active learning”) we can remember and apply our knowledge over and over for the rest of our lives, building on it, letting it grow inside us and letting us help us to grow.

One of my students came up with a wonderful Total Participation exercise that shows how, even reading the same text, we all pay attention differently.  When she ran our class, she had each student write down one sentence from the required reading assignment. We went around and everyone read their sentence.  In a class of 25, not one person had chosen the same sentence.  She had us do the same thing next with a 20-line poem. Again, the range of lines we selected was astonishing. 

We think we all read the same text.  In fact, we read the text of our lives in everything we read. 


BONUS:  11.  I wish I’d known all this before I started . . . but I would have missed a lot of learning if I had. 
I’m not sure I knew any of this when I started.  I learned techniques.  I learned methods.  I read about how we learn.  I wish I’d understood all of this . . . but maybe, when I think about it, it is better that I learned by doing.  That, after all, is what active learning is.  Let’s get started!



3 responses to “What I Wish I Knew When I Started Doing Active Learning”

  1. In terms of intro texts (as opposed to deep dives), I like @LangOnCourse’s On Course, Linda Nilson’s Teaching at Its Best, @ClaireHMajor @ToddZakrajsek & Michael Harris’s Teaching for Learning, @CathyNDavidson’s The New Education, & @KenBain1’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

  2. Please use the Comments to add your own thoughts. 
    Only those who have signed up for hastac.org can leave comments.  Everyone is welcome.  It’s free and we are very careful about your data–and never ever sell it or give it away to anyone else.  As a HASTAC member, you will receive one newsletter every month of the academic year and occasional announcements of urgency, never more than two a month.  Join us!  Contribute!  Add your ideas to nearly 16,000 of us “Changing the Way We Teach and Learn” and where “Difference Is Our Operating System.”  We welcome your contribution!

  3. These all come from the morning’s tweets:
    12.  There is no one right way to teach, no one right way to learn
    There is no one right way to teach, no one right way to learn. Learning is social. Great teaching is connecting, empathy. Lead with yr strengths—and remember your students do not necessarily share those. Find a way to make a match. #NewEducation
    13.  It’s all about the space we share together.
    I’m not “against lectures” in the same way I’m not “against laptops.” It is always ab how you use the space (inc online) you are in together to foster learning. TPS, Exit Tickets, etc, turn lectures of 600 (or dept meetings or seminars) into active learning
    14. It’s not “the administration” or “the faculty”–it’s all of us
    Yet another College President heard from. So many faculty say “Administrators are the problem.” Administrators?  “Faculty are the problem.”  We are ALL the problem.  We are ALL the solution.  Together.  #NewEducation