Improving Student Engagement through Active Learning

a classroom with students standing up, one holding a slip of paper in his hand.

Students engaging in an active learning exercise in a 6.033 recitation session. (Photo by MIT OCW)

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Dr. Katrina LaCurts, a lecturer in MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, had a problem. Her course 6.033 Computer System Engineering included twice-weekly recitation sessions in addition to the regular lectures. These recitations were meant to allow students to discuss questions raised in the lectures and readings and to work through sample problems in smaller groups. But recitation instructors reported that many students weren’t participating in discussions because they hadn’t done the assigned readings. When the instructors tried to compensate by going over key material from the readings all over again in class, not only did this take up valuable time, it also produced an undesirable secondary effect: when students came to expect that recitations would recapitulate the key points from the readings, they had even less incentive to do the readings themselves, and they came to class even less prepared to participate meaningfully.

So in redesigning the course, Dr. LaCurts decided to emphasize active learning as a key element in the recitations. What is “active learning”? It’s a general term for any and all classroom techniques that have a participatory, non-passive component, ranging from small-group discussion to skits, polls, simulations, and role playing. Dr. LaCurts describes her motivation for making this change:

“There’s some evidence that this style of learning is good for a lot of things. There’s evidence to support the effectiveness of student engagement in exam scores, failure rates, how well students remember content, student attitudes, study habits. And there’s also evidence that active learning has a disproportionate benefit for minorities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and female students in male dominated fields.”

An Unsuccessful First Try

But Dr. LaCurts soon found out that implementing active learning in a large, multi-section course is easier said than done. In one of the video excerpts posted on the Instructor Insights page of the OCW course site, she explains that simply telling instructors to implement active learning was ineffective:

“It turns out you can’t tell your recitation instructors to do a thing that they’ve never done before and just have them magically do it. In particular, you can’t tell your instructors to fundamentally change the way they teach and magically have that happen. I would say it’s difficult enough for us to change the way we teach, much less to get other people to change the way they teach.”

She concluded that to implement active learning effectively, she’d have to take a more active approach herself. Here are the steps she recommends for anyone trying to encourage a team of instructors to incorporate active learning in their class sessions:

1. Get Everyone on Board

The very first staff meeting, before the semester had even begun, was about active learning. Dr. LaCurts and her teaching staff, consisting of nine recitation instructors, nine teaching assistants, and thirteen communications instructors, discussed why active learning is better than lecturing, and how it could support the other learning objectives in 6.033 Computer System Engineering. Dr. LaCurts explained that there would be extensive support for the recitation instructors’ efforts, with check-ins throughout the semester to make sure active learning was really working for them and for the students. She appealed to everyone’s scientific nature, explaining that this restructuring of the course was a sort of research project, to find out whether active learning techniques would work in 6.033. She also told them that if the experiment went badly, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

Dr. LaCurts did expect some pushback. She’s in charge of a lot of educators, some of whom have been at MIT for a very long time. But she reports that talking about active learning early on and setting expectations from the beginning was surprisingly helpful. Everybody–not just the recitation instructors but also the teaching assistants and communications instructors–knew that active learning wasn’t an optional element of the course, it was their primary instructional goal for the semester.

2. Plan a Lot

Dr. LaCurts supplied her staff with an annotated version of a well-known list of several hundred active learning activities. In the second staff meeting, she and her staff went through the whole list. They knew that not all of the activities would work in the recitations, but going through the list gave everyone a better sense of what active learning can be.

Dr. LaCurts also identified specific active learning techniques for each recitation. In previous semesters, she had planned recitations strictly for technical content. She would tell instructors the technical issues they needed to hit on, but her instructors had great leeway in how they taught those topics. Now, in addition to the technical content, she began specifying two or three active learning techniques that could be employed in each recitation. For instance, she might point out places where students could break into groups to discuss a particular question, or where it would be useful to hold a debate in the class. For each recitation, the instructors had multiple options for implementing active learning in their sections, and from among these options, they could pick the ones they were the most comfortable with.

3. Support Staff as Individuals

Dr. LaCurts didn’t just plan these activities and set the staff free. She took the time to observe recitation sessions throughout the semester, making sure to stress that she wasn’t there to evaluate the instructors themselves but to see what was working and what wasn’t, so staff could implement those techniques more effectively in future sessions.

In practice, Dr. LaCurts was pleased to discover that in her observations she found far more successful activities than problematic ones. Most of her feedback to the instructors consisted of pointing out things they were doing that were really well, and encouraging them to share those techniques with the other instructors. In the end, she says, “I kind of thought of myself more as a cheerleader for them and what they were doing, than someone who was coming in and really critiquing anything.”

4. Support Staff as a Group

Dr. LaCurts’s staff had many creative ideas as to how to use active learning techniques to present the course’s technical content. So at every staff meeting, instructors would share techniques they had tried and report on how they went. Knowing what worked well in other recitation sections gave more hesitant instructors the confidence to try similar techniques with their own students.

Conversely, fostering a space for discussion at staff meetings meant that everybody was generally comfortable bringing up techniques that they had tried but that weren’t going as well. Dr. LaCurts reports that it was helpful for the staff to have this dedicated space for mutual support and nonjudgmental reflection.

What Kinds of Things Did Students Do?

Small group discussion is a very common type of active learning: students are put in small groups and asked to talk something over and then report back for a class-wide discussion. Dr. LaCurts has found that talking in these small groups beforehand makes the shyer students a lot more confident, and that asking each group to contribute to the eventual discussion means that the discussion isn’t dominated by one or two groups.

In a second technique, debating, students are asked to read two short papers that come to opposing conclusions. The recitation section is split into two teams, with each team assigned to debate in favor of one of the papers’ conclusions. Students usually enjoy this activity, Dr. LaCurts says: “They love to argue, so they’re very excited to do this.” But she admits the activity does require more monitoring on the instructors’ part, to ensure that no one team or person dominates the debate. To combat that, teams are asked to meet beforehand to prepare their arguments for the in-class debate.

A third technique is to ask students to draw pictures on the board, illustrating a particular system or component. The class then comes together to discuss what each drawing is showing, what features the various depictions share, what level of abstraction each drawing captures, and so on. This activity is especially useful because part of the communication curriculum for 6.033 Computer System Engineering involves learning how to design and draw figures. The activity provides a way for students to practice that skill while also forcing them to figure out exactly what the system is doing.

The last technique Dr. LaCurts describes in her video is one where students are asked to physically act out a computer system’s completion of a task. Students are assigned roles as parts of the system, usually with two or three students assigned to each role so shyer students will be more comfortable and no one student is in charge of something. Each part of the system is given instructions, and the system is set into operation. Afterward, the class reconvenes to discuss how the system performed (or failed to perform) its task.

Two women, one wearing a large paper hat, standing in the front of a classrom.

Dr. LaCurts (right) and a volunteer (left, in silly hat) demonstrate acting out how a master machine assigns tasks in MapReduce. (Image by MIT OCW.)

How It Turned Out

Dr. LaCurts reports that restructuring 6.033 Computer System Engineering has resulted in significant improvements in class participation. In surveys, students reported feeling comfortable in the recitations and overwhelmingly felt that these activities improved their engagement. Further, Dr. LaCurts and her staff have seen that students are understanding the details of the systems better, while developing a sense of camaraderie.

It hasn’t been only the students who have benefited from the restructuring of the recitation sessions, however. The staff has benefited as well, as Dr. LaCurts explains:

“It’s a lot of work, but this class is so much fun now. It’s fun for me to run. It’s fun for instructors to teach. I don’t know how many people would tell you that their 400-person class is fun to run. But I have a great time. And the amount of enjoyment that we get out of teaching 6.033 this way really comes through for the students.”

To Learn More

Want to know more about active learning in MIT classrooms? The following courses feature Instructor Insights that you may find of interest:

An electron micrograph of long, slender cells interacting with shorter, thicker, roughly cylindrical cells.8.591J Systems Biology

In this course, Professor Jeff Gore uses color-coded flash cards to quickly survey students’ responses to key concept questions. At the Instructor Insights page, he discusses how and why he uses these cards, and he addresses the perceived barriers to implementing active learning in large classrooms.

The body of a helicopterlike device.16.06 Principles of Automatic Control

The Instructor Insights page for this course features videos on the experience of using active learning, including a candid description of the apprehensions students may feel when asked to try unfamiliar activities in the classroom.

A graph of several curves of varying heights and widths18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics

In one of the Instructor Insights for this course, Dr. Jeremy Orloff and Dr. Jonathan Bloom discuss the importance of trust in their active learning classroom and their strategies for promoting it.

Students holding up a QR card5.95J Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering

Dr. Janet Rankin shares an overview of active learning and seven active learning strategies in the Instructor Insights videos for this course, which aims to prepare graduate students to teach in higher education settings.

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