Actively Teaching Active Learning

Image of students

Students in 5.95 engage in “lightning round” discussions.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

When you think about education, it’s easy to feel jaded. After all, waves of education reform have swept over American schools and colleges for decades, and tangible improvements—let alone a sea change—don’t exactly spring to mind.

But new hope has arisen in recent years, and with good reason, because for the first time teaching practices are being aligned with how the mind actually works. Studies are showing that there are certain things that teachers can do to make substantial improvements in student learning.

Action and Interaction

One of the key discoveries is that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own learning, rather than sitting back passively and just listening (or not) to an instructor. And they learn even better when this active engagement is accompanied by interactive exchanges with other students.

How to put this wisdom into practice is at the center of 5.95 Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering, just published on OCW. As taught in Fall 2015, the course surveys all aspects of teaching a STEM course, including what is known about student learning and cognition, how to design a course and develop learning outcomes, how to design effective assignments and assessments, and even how to grade.

The instructor is Dr. Janet Rankin, the acting Director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab, which has been helping to boost effective educational practices on campus for many years.

Well-Informed Practice  

The centerpiece of the 5.95 course site is a collection of videos that show why Dr. Rankin is such an avid advocate of active learning and how she puts active learning to effective use in her own classes. In other words, she doesn’t just preach. She practices.

Three class videos show how Dr. Rankin combines short lectures with a variety of active learning techniques to bolster student learning and knowledge retention.

In a number of video Instructor Insights, Dr. Rankin explains the virtues of active learning in its various manifestations, and footage from her class shows how the different techniques played out. With experience teaching in a variety of settings, from discussion-based seminars to large lectures, Rankin knows how to adapt the techniques to different situations in order to get the best results and avoid missteps.

 

Many Methods to Success

The techniques often have intriguing names: mud cards, think-pair-share, debate, beach ball, personal response systems, lightning round, jigsaw. And they often produce scenes that would surprise STEM educators accustomed to giving non-interactive lectures. How can serious learning take place with students tossing a beach ball around the classroom?  If each student who catches the ball has to say what they think about a given question, discussion is rapid-fire, participation is high, and the often inhibiting dynamic in which the all-knowing instructor puts students on the spot with pointed questions never comes into play.

In the lightning round, students line up face to face so that each person briefly shares with their counterpart their views on a given question. Then students shift places in the line, and begin again. In this way, students can quickly get a sense of how others in the class think about a topic. They get comfortable talking to one another.  They have fun! And their understanding is broadened and made more sophisticated. Knowledge gets reinforced.

Coming up with productive questions can make a big difference in these activities, and Dr. Rankin offers advice on this as well.

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OCW has another version of 5.95, taught in Spring 2009 by Sanjoy Mahajan, also an advocate of active learning. Now a Professor at Olin College, Mahajan was at the time Associate Director of the Teaching and Learning Lab. The course site has full videos of the class sessions and is also worth a visit.

One thought on “Actively Teaching Active Learning

  1. This subject is near and dear to my heart. Are there credible data indicating the degree to which “active learning” techniques have penetrated the education establishment, from preschool to post-graduate levels? (Effectiveness is a separate but interesting topic.)

    My history includes discovering “how to learn” via MIT’s Experimental Study Group (ESG) in the early ’70s, and my work at Boston Children’s Museum for the ensuing decade, helping 950,000 kids-of-all-ages understand (and take control of) technology via hands-on discovery.

    Liked by 1 person

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