IDC02-A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice

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Welcome to the second episode of the ID Corner podcast, where we talk about anything and everything related to teaching and learning.  I am your host, Jedidiah Rex, Instructional Designer at Lawrence University.

This podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. You may also subscribe manually through the feed on my blog. Notes, resources, and transcript are also available there. My blog may be found at

Today I am going to review a book titled, “A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice” by Paul Baepler, J.D. Walker, D. Christopher Brooks, Kem Saichaie, and Christina Petersen, published in2016. This is an important work, referenced by the Educause Learning Initiative in their, “7 Things You Should Know About … Research on Active Learning Classrooms.” Active learning pedagogy and active learning classrooms, or ALCs, are an important topic on many campuses. Lawrence is no exception. As higher education is looking for ways to engage with students, active learning has come to the fore as a means of doing that. This book is a great resource for anyone interested learning about, or considering teaching in an active learning classroom. My goal for this episode is to distill for you those things I found most informative and helpful for someone interested teaching in an active learning classroom.

As the title suggests, this book takes a past-present-future approach to look at how the pedagogy of active learning classrooms has developed. While it is not necessary to know the exact history of the development of ALCs, it is helpful to see that the use of ALC’s has over twenty years of research and development. Some of the key findings from research about ALCs shared in this book are, and I quote:

  • Students in Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) outperform their peers in traditional classrooms;
  • Students is ALCs exceed their own grade expectations as predicted by standardized test scores;
  • Using an active learning pedagogical approach in an ALC results in significant student learning gains over using a lecture-based approach in the same space; and
  • Using a flipped classroom model and a blended learning approach in an ALC can compensate for significant reductions in face-to-face time in the classroom. (17)

So what do we see here? Student achievement can be increased through active learning compared to a traditional approach. Matching pedagogy with the space increases student learning. Utilizing active learning pedagogies, such as flipped learning, can make up for a reduction in face time. It has also become apparent from the research that the space design has an effect on the level of student achievement. Studies in 2008, 2010, and 2011 all point to increased engagement and achievement for students taught in an ALC. (19, 22, 24) There is a strong correlation between student achievement and the relationship between teaching design and space. The better the design fits the space and the space supports the design, the better the student achievement will be.

Due to the social nature of teaching and learning, ALCs change the ways in which instructors relate to students and the ways in which students relate to each other. The research presented in the book looks at four different variables when measuring how and to what degree the variables affect learning. I will post a link to the specific research, the Social Context and Learning Environments (SCALE) survey, in the blog post for this episode. There is a wealth of information there about the effects of ALCs and active learning pedagogy on student achievement. In short, results show that students out performed students in a traditional class.  

ALCs change how instructors and students relate to one another and may present some challenges to the teaching and learning process. The authors point out four categories of challenges. These are:

  • Planning to teach in the space
  • Teaching in the space
  • Managing student resistance
  • Employing technology in the space

Teaching in an ALC with active learning pedagogy requires planning. In most cases, doing so will mean modifying a majority of a course. All of these areas must be given careful thought and planning to have a successful experience. An example of something that may need to change is a reliance on lecture. The authors share that lecture has been shown to be less effective in ALCs as cited in Brooks, 2012; and Walker, Brooks, Baepler, 2011.

Some questions that the authors suggest that instructors consider are:

  • What is it like to be in the space?
  • How do I need to change the course to fit the space?
  • How can I adapt course materials to fit in the space?

Active learning requires a different level of energy and engagement from students. They may not initially participate with joy. If you find yourself in that situation, there are some things that you can do to help change the student perspective. These include communicating the ways in which the space supports the work and learning that you desire, sharing the connection between the kind of work and skills they will do and acquire in class to those desired by future employers. Any time you can point out the research on the positive effect of active learning and ALCs won’t hurt either.

Another challenge of teaching in an ALC is that students may feel isolated if you structure your course in such a way that the same group or teams of students only work with that same group.

Additionally challenging in an ALC is the redefinition or lack of a “front of the room.” As mentioned by the authors, “Instructors new to ALCs find that it can be difficult to locate and hear student, to move through the space, and to regain attention from a new spot in the room. The lack of a central focal spot means instructors need to plan for how to direct attention in the space, including defining the front of the room and positioning themselves to ensure students can locate the speaker.”

So what should an instructor do? What can an instructor do to mediate possible challenges? Being up front and sharing possible challenges with students along with how you as the instructor decide to address them can help greatly to minimize challenges. In the case of the –lack-of-front-of-room, discuss how this can and may affect how you and they relate to one another. If you experience difficulty regaining students’ attention, perhaps creating a common gesture or phrase, or using a timer can help. In the situation in which students may feel isolated, I recommend sharing the structure of the class, the pedagogy you will use and why you think it is important for their learning with the students. Being upfront about the ‘why’ provides an opportunity for the student to increase their understanding and engagement in the learning experience.

Some students (and instructors) might be intimidated by all the technology that can be present in an active learning classroom. First, let me say that active learning does not require the use of technology. An instructor can make use of active learning strategies without using technology. That said the best way to minimize this challenge is to make pointed use of the technology, making sure that the technology use aligns with the desired learning objectives. The technology use should support the learning goals. Sharing the learning goals with students and explaining how your use of technology supports the learning goal can help them see the purpose behind the use, which in turn can mitigate reticence and help them engage more fully.

One final challenge related to technology may be digital distraction. The combination of a room filled with screens and the possibility of having and needing a device of their own can make it easy for a student to be distracted. Some of the strategies shared by the authors include moving around the room, providing cues for when devices may be used and not, and beginning class with a rigorous activity. This last recommendation gets the students focused on an activity and reduces the opportunity for distraction.

We are going to turn now from challenges to look at differences between traditional and ALC experiences. Aside from the flexible furniture, focus on group work, and heavy technology presence, how is teaching in an ALC different from in a traditional classroom? The authors point out four common features of effective activities in an ALC. These are, and I quote:

  • Most of the information transmission in the form of lecture by the professor is significantly reduced or moved out of the classroom;
  • Most activities are supported by graded pre-class reading, homework, and quizzes or post class homework;
  • Students often work in small teams on activities designed to provide them with a deeper understanding of the topic, and;
  • Classroom activities are typically followed by some form of whole-class synthesis facilitated by the instructor that may take the form of a discussion a short assessment, or a mini-lecture. (72)

So from this, we can see a few general characteristics. Teaching in an ALC lends itself to a flipped model where traditional information transfer happens outside of the class and the class time is devoted to discussion or work on problem sets. Next, the work students are required to do outside of class counts toward their overall grade. It is not busy work, but preparation for the learning that will happen in the class. Finally, there is some sort of culminating group synthesis activity to make sure that everyone is on the same page. There is a mixture of group time and whole-class time. I see this mixture as movement. Movement of the class along a trajectory toward the course goals, and movement within the students toward shared understanding. It is a churning of information as students work with the subject matter in order to construct their own understanding. What should a collaborative experience look like and how can an instructor manage this movement? How can an instructor facilitate a positive experience for the students?

The next chapter in this book looks at these questions and outlines benefits of collaborative work, characteristics of collaborative groups, and then recommendations for configuring groups and experiences within an active learning experience. Some of the benefits of collaborative work the authors share are:

  • Exposure to multiple perspectives and increased openness to diversity;
  • Increased problems solving abilities; and
  • Greater satisfaction with learning. (121)

One benefit the authors’ share that I find particularly pertinent in today’s higher-ed environment is that it has been found that introducing collaborative work in the first year increases the likelihood that a student will persist to the second year of college. (121) This finding on its own should encourage any instructor to consider working this type of activity into first-year and intro courses. The authors also point to the power of collaborative work saying that, “researchers have also suggested that students develop the capacity to reach mastery through a complex and challenging objective that no single student could reach alone.” (124) So the collective nature of the collaborative group allows the students as a whole achieve more than the individual students could on their own. Not to reduce this to cliché, but is seems that the sum is greater than the parts when collaborative work is involved.

How does collaborative work facilitate these benefits? The authors point out 5 common characteristics of all active learning strategies that facilitate learning gains. These are: accountability, group processing, interaction, interdependence and skill development. (124-125) An instructor should attempt to structure an active or collaborative learning experience to contain these things. The rest of this chapter details strategies that an instructor may use to do so. The very first strategy mentioned by the authors is developing learning outcomes or objectives for the group. (125) This is paramount for a couple reasons. First, to clarify for the instructor what the learning experience is to be about. Objective define what is it that the instructor wishes the students to get out of the experience. Second to communicate to students the ‘why’ of the experience. It communicates the importance the work that the students will be doing. Questions the authors share to help an instructor get at these are:

  • “What ideas or concepts should endure for the students one month, one year, and one decade after they complete the course?”

And next,

  • “What competencies or levels of mastery should a student be able to demonstrate after finishing the course? (125)

The next section in this chapter focuses in on creating student groups and addresses issues such as when to form groups, ways to form groups, group size, group roles, and group duration. (127-134) I will do my best to summarize each of these. When you might form groups depends on the objectives for the group and the scope of the activity. There is a range of time that groups may be formed but most instructors polled by the authors agreed that doing so as early as possible is best. (128) Next the authors share ways in which groups may be formed. They list four. They are random, instructor-generated, self-generated, and mixed. (128-130) There are plusses and minuses for each of these methods. I have seen each of them used in by instructors at Lawrence. One recommendation I have received from a number of instructors related to forming groups, no matter the specific method, is to provide the students an opportunity to confidentially share if there is someone they are not able to work with. This is a proactive strategy to meet student needs and promote group success. Another consideration an instructor needs to take into account in the group size. This can vary but generally staying within four to seven students per group seems to work best. (132) the scope of the activity has some determination of the size of the group. The group size should correlate with how much work is required or how challenging the project or activity is. (132) Space logistics may also play a role in the group size. (133) The success of a group can be influenced by the use of roles, however there is mixed opinion on whether roles should be used. (133) Those opposing group assignment mention that roles form organically. (134) An instructor should make an effort to allow students to function in different roles if roles are assigned. (133) Last in this list the authors discuss how long a group should last. Some reported that groups lasting the entire term are best while others reported that a shorter duration is better. (134) The authors additionally mention that may instructors shared that it is easier to manage groups that persist over a longer duration. (134) I think key to determining how a group will be structured and how long that group will remain, is to create a planned structure based on the learning objectives, taking into consideration influences space may have, then thinking about the structure, difficulty, and scope of the activity.

After talking about how a collaborative activity and groups may be structured the authors turn to how an instructor may promote success of those groups within an active learning activity. The outline of the next section includes thoughts on group accountability, group dynamics, group dysfunctions, groups outside the classroom, and groups in a blended or online environment. The authors then turn to strategies for assessing student work in the context of a group activity. Strategies covered here are weighting grades to promote group work, avoiding grade curving, and peer assessment. They conclude the chapter with a discussion of strategies for closing the  collaborative activity. One idea to point out is the idea of accountability. Groups will function more smoothly and students more engaged if members are accountable to one another. Some instructors recommend a group contract (136). While this can be beneficial, an instructor at minimum should have the groups or class discuss norms for how the group will function. It can be helpful to include the students in the creation of norms instead of handing them down. Including the students will give them a sense of ownership and greater accountability. (136) Group dysfunction may arise and the literature mentions that encouraging the groups to work it out is the best strategy. (140) When assessing group work an instructor can promote collaboration by weighting the grading structure to highlight group accomplishments. (141) Another recommendation is to avoid curving grades. Curving grades, or using a norm- referenced grade puts students in competition with one another. (143) There are good recommendations here around peer assessment also on page 143 and 144. You may also listen to episode 1 of this podcast for information about peer assessment.

The next chapter in A Guide to Teaching in the active Learning Classroom tackles the topic of assessment specifically. Just as an active classroom supports collaborative activity it can also support collaborative assessment. (153) Active learning supports collaborative activities as well as collaborative exams or quizzes. Designing these can present a challenge to an instructor new to active learning. One example of a collaborative exam that works well in an active classroom setting is a two-stage exam. (155) In this model, a student takes one part of the exam individually and then participates in a collaborative portion. There are two main ways to provision grades: norm-referenced or criterion referenced. A norm referenced grading scheme may be seen as being more fair (161) but in effect pits students against one another in competition for a top grade. (143) Criterion-referenced grading conversely allows each student to earn a particular grade based on predetermined criteria. (162) The authors point out that if you want students to work collaboratively you should use a criterion-referenced approach. (162)

The authors now turn to the topic of supporting all learners. Many of the challenges mentioned before can be an even bigger challenge for students with disabilities. (169) Forethought and planning should be given to proactively meeting these challenges. The authors point out that the number of student with disabilities attending college is on the rise and that as of 2013 11% of undergraduates reported having a disability. (169) Another group for whom the active learning environment may pose a challenge are non-native speakers. The presence of these students on our campuses is also increasing. (169) One strategy for supporting all students is to share course expectations clearly from the very beginning of your course. (173) Additionally, making use of the universal design for learning framework in the design of the course and materials can help remove challenges that students may encounter. If you are interested in learning more about universal design for learning, please check out my blog and the materials I have there. The rest of this chapter outlines specific strategies for addressing challenges and removing barriers for students in the active learning classroom.

The last three chapters of this book share information about strategies for supporting faculty, how to design learning spaces research, and future direction with active learning classrooms. While these are interesting topics they all fall outside the scope of what I hope to address in this episode. This book is a wealth of information, and full of helpful, research-backed strategies for teaching in an active learning classroom. I hope that you found this episode informative and helpful. If you are interested teaching in an active learning classroom please reach out to me. I also welcome you to visit my blog to comment or discuss anything I have shared here. Thank you for listening and have a great day.