Taking the ‘Active’ out of Active Learning

I guess this is my month for rants.  My “why-attention-getter-lists-stink” blog felt like a channeling of Dennis Miller.  And like the impetus for that annoying experience, I have another – also the result of a Google search gone awry.



After a recent discussion with my wife, I performed a lengthy search for  active learning strategies“. 

From PBL to constructivism to flipped learning, it’s a topic that has been around for decades.  Even at Saint Leo, I walked into a culture where Active Learning is expected in every classroom.  SLU trains on it, puts it into professor’s yearly development plans, and evaluates around it.

But what I found was…well, it was beyond underwhelming.

The best way I can describe my frustration is to provide a really similar analogy.  Let me start with a question:  Have you ever been to a conference session on active learning where the presenter did everything BUT demonstrate the concept?  It’s akin to my original discipline of Speech Communication.  I can’t tell you how often our conferences see boring speakers delivering boring messages about how not to be boring!

I try REALLY hard to incorporate active learning in every keynote, workshop, or seminar I deliver.  While I don’t have the time to setup an active learning strategy over the course of weeks, I do my best with the hour I’m usually given to get people in the audience interacting, doing, and trying things.  After all, I’ve sat where they sit.  I know that even the best presenters need to break up the message with interaction or people simply get fidgety, if not distracted.  Which is why it’s all that much harder to give up my precious conference currency (time) and spend it in a session about a topic that is not even modeled.

So, with that backdrop, it’s also really disappointing to see the websites and articles out there which promote “active learning” that don’t seem “active” at all. 

I’m going to guess why the sites and resources with active learning lists and ideas are so weak.  Not only do many of the sites seem 10-15 years old (and rarely if ever updated), I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to practitioners who likely knew they couldn’t convince traditional talk-and-test teachers to adopt new, active practices if those practices were “too” hard or “too” different.  (I HOPE that’s the reason anyway…)

But the ensuing problem is that the definition and resulting application of the term “active learning” is so broad and so watered down on most sites, the concept is lost altogether.  The word “active” (on most sites) seems to mean, “any time the brain might be working.” For instance, a number of these sites include in their “active learning” examples things like student reading, professor lecturing, test / quiz taking, and class discussion.  Wait, what?

Yes, I’m sure the brain is indeed “active” during these activities, just as it’s active when you’re sleeping or watching tv.  But wasn’t the whole point of the “active learning” movement to push teachers and faculty away from lecturing?  And how many students are LEARNING from exams?  And what textbooks are these folks reading?  Again, while the brain might be stimulated or producing electrical energy, I think it’s a stretch to call it “active learning” at all.

But aside from these frameworks and paradigms, the lists of strategies themselves are troubling to me.  Yes, there are the oldies-but-goodies; the super weak active learning strategies that do indeed move the engagement needle a hair above lecture, like “Think-Pair-Share” or Jigsaw or Crossword Puzzles or the use of Feature Films.  But there are others I just don’t get:

  • Pregnant pausing. Stop talking for an extended amount of time to let the concept “sink in” and the discomfort of the silence really get people thinking.
  • Give students a keyword list to watch for so that they are actively engaged once it ‘shows up’ in the reading.
  • Move around your classroom.
  • Put students in teams and let them talk through the material.
  • Set a timer at the front of the room forcing students to get through peer discussions quickly.
  • Have students view your entire PowerPoint presentation online prior to coming to class.
  • Make students perform a literature review of the materials to be taught in a class so that your work augments their understanding.
  • Talk with students as they take their seats.
  • Take the lecture outside – walk as you talk.
  • Perform an ice breaker.

There are plenty more, but I hope you’re seeing what I’m talking about.  For some of these I’d like to see the research.  Pausing in a lecture feels less “active” and more “weird” than anything else.  Previewing content is simply good process, but again I don’t see how it pertains to active learning.  Movement and pre-conversations may indeed promote immediacy, a valuable and important teaching concept, but active learning?  I don’t think so.  Timers seem akin to brainstorming, which we know from cognitive science is bad for introverts and from social scientists is bad for quality.  Some people simply can’t work effectively under those conditions.  Collaborative learning can certainly work – IF you have students capable of handling it.  (Part of my desire for active learning is to engage the entire class, not just the rule followers.)  A lit review and pre-studying of materials is indeed a good practice.  But I thought the idea here was how to engage students during normal class hours, not by giving assignments likely given anyway.  As for ice breakers…while they may gain attention, I’d have to see them to know if they were indeed active learning.  And finally walking around?  Easy Socrates.  Essentially you just upped distractions by a factor of ten and made it really hard for large groups of students to hear you.

So, I guess it’s up to me to dig a lot more and likely even create some of my own.  Please know I’m not saying all of the resources out there stink.  Stanford has some nice stuff and I like some of what Millis (UTSA) has done in her Idea paper.  But I think I’ll start my own resource – an Active Learning Strategies Page with categories, activities, and levels of both engagement as well as effort.

I hope you find it helpful, but please don’t hesitate to add some great ideas of your own and tell me what I’m missing!  Maybe we’ll get a stronger sense of what Active Learning means once we get out of the mindset that all learning is active learning…

Good luck and good teaching!

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer