The New Active Learning

In the early 2000s, I led a program to encourage and support faculty at Minnesota’s community-technical colleges and state universities (MnSCU) to adopt active learning strategies. At the time, we used the most comprehensive definition of “active learning” that we could find, by Bonwell and Eison: “anything that gets students doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, 1991; ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports). To my knowledge, Charles Bonwell and James Eison were the first to gather data on active learning strategies to see what worked. There wasn’t a lot of data.

Now, fifteen years later, “active learning” is still a popular and broad concept. The evidence of its efficacy for college teaching and learning has grown, and some researchers are talking about strategies that have a demonstrable impact on learners. Rather than talk about ill-defined “best practices,” a consensus seems to have formed around High Impact Practices (often, sadly, called HIP).

As defined by George Kuh in his High Impact Educational Practices (2008), these practices “have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds” (https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips). Many of the practices that fall into the “active learning” category are among the teaching strategies Kuh documents, including undergraduate research, service learning, writing-intensive courses, and the more general collaborative projects.

To help our students to learn more and learn better, which is the promise of “high impact practices,” we need to engage students in their learning. We can give students classroom tasks and assignments that cause them to do things and reflect on their doing. And we can give them early and frequent feedback.

A common undercurrent to this discussion is the idea that traditional lectures are effective for some things and not for others, for some students and not for others. If we truly want students to learn the material, we can’t expect them to sit still for a 16 week lecture, take notes, and then simply take a mid-term and a final. There are ways to make learning more active in a lecture-based course, as well as quick and simple ways to give students feedback early and often.

At BMCC, many faculty are working to engage their students daily in research, service learning, writing, and other active learning strategies. BMCC math instructor Bukurie Gjoci wrote in the latest issue of Inquirer (Fall 2016) about how integrating active learning strategies into math classes improved student understanding.

We also encourage students to participate in common intellectual experiences and first year seminars through ASAP and the BMCC Learning Academy. The Office of Academic Affairs will be engaging with faculty across the college, including ASAP and BLA faculty, in learning more about High Impact Practices in the coming months as we make our way toward becoming a High Impact College.

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