Decades of research demonstrate that active learning is superior to lectures, but lecturing is still the dominant mode of teaching. Why do lectures persist? One hypothesis is that faculty avoid active learning because it is inherently risky — and risk is uncomfortable. Students risk looking silly when asked to contribute, and professors risk having the whole lesson derailed by putting control in the hands of students. While active learning is riskier than a lecture, done well, it results in far better outcomes. Luckily, teaching in a virtual environment presents a unique opportunity to mitigate risk and leverage active learning for student growth.
As a good professor, you prep before delivering a lecture; you’ve probably done this one before. You know the flow, the exact order of ideas, the next image that will pop up, the joke you will tell on slide thirty-four. You’re in control of the situation and can move through the material without friction. Occasionally, someone raises a hand that might set you off course, but you are front and center, so you can quickly put the train back on the tracks. Lectures are like the Eurostar, and you are the conductor, speeding smoothly from one point to the next, giving students an easy, pleasant ride through your ideas.
Active learning, on the other hand, can feel more like a road trip, without GPS, in an overpacked, 1967 Volkswagen hippie van that occasionally breaks down. Although you might have a clear destination in mind, the driver keeps switching, and you’re at the whim of your many co-pilots. You’ll miss exits, circle back around on your route, and, from time to time, get completely turned around. You risk conceptual fender-benders or worse. But, like any good road trip, when active learning is done right, it is a memorable and meaningful experience.
Bonwell and Eaton (early proponents of active learning) suggested it was best to create “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.” This sounds simple enough, but it means you must know what you want students to learn, design an activity that helps them learn it, then have them explicitly reflect on what they have learned. Bad active learning, where people do something without an achievable goal, without clear procedural directions, and without reflection, is far worse than a lecture. Doing active learning well is time-consuming and difficult. To make matters worse, students don’t believe active learning works, even when it goes well. Research by Deslauriers and colleagues (2019) shows that people learn more from active learning, but actually think they learn less. Rather than seeing struggling through the material as a sign of growth, students pay attention to the negative emotions associated with the struggle and code it as “not learning.” This information should equip you to help students navigate the active learning experience.
There is no one path that will lead to effective active learning, but if you’ve been avoiding it because it seems difficult, the tools found in virtual environments can help you find your way. You are probably a pretty good teacher; give your students a chance to be good students. Explicitly set class norms, request preparation, and solicit participation. Be clear about where you are going and why, then use polls, worksheets, and breakouts to guide the discussion safely there. If you let the students drive while you navigate and embrace wrong turns as opportunities for learning, you’ll be able to memorably get where you are going. Long live road trips.
Bonwell, C.C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.
Richland, L E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L.S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243.
Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M.G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 918.