By Frances Kalu, Teaching and Learning Specialist, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
“We might be too busy trying to cover content with our students that we miss the chance to uncover content with them.” – Richard Dawkins
Can lectures and active learning go hand-in-hand?
When one thinks of active learning, one might imagine learner-centered spaces, students in groups huddled over movable tables, chairs on wheels, smart-boards, electronic display carts, whiteboards, and myriad activities. On the other hand, the word lecture might connote visions of students sitting in rows facing an instructor in the role of “sage on the stage.”
As the thinking around teaching and learning moves towards active learning, there remains a place for all methodologies, including lectures. Lectures are a means of directly delivering information to learners. This is usually effective when a large amount of content is to be delivered, and it is used in a majority of adult education classrooms. On the downside, lecturing is sometimes seen to promote passive learning, as it does not necessarily encourage learners to actively participate. Citing different researchers, Meyers & Jones (1993, p. 14 -15) note that the disadvantages of lectures include the fact that students do not pay attention 40% of the time during lectures, that they lose interest and develop an inability to retain information as lectures progress, and that they do not engage in higher order thinking. The authors also put forward arguments from proponents of lectures who wonder how students can delve into actively learning about topics they do not know enough about. Another point of view is that without the use of lectures to deliver content, copious amount of content would potentially not be covered.
On the other hand, learning is not a spectator sport, and students must take part in their learning in order to create meaning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Educators have used strategies such as questioning to engage students actively in the classroom. However, there has been more emphasis recently on active learning, and it has become a buzz term as educators delve deeper into understanding learning. In their definition of active learning, Scott Freeman et al. (2014) reiterate the dichotomy between active and passive learning by defining active learning as the process through which students learn by way of activities or conversations that aid learning, in contrast to acquiring knowledge without any or little involvement in the process. They also emphasize that this engagement in the learning process promotes higher-order thinking. Principles of active learning originate from the constructivist belief that learners actively construct meaning by building on prior knowledge and experiences. By creating active learning environments, educators create spaces in which students can construct their own knowledge. On the flip side, proponents mention the lack of time to implementing active learning strategies in the classroom and the misconception that it must involve group work or technology.
Strategies for More Active Lectures
In a bid to merge lectures and active learning, Meixun Zheng offered a Magna Online Webinar on Active Learning identifying various ideas that educators can apply to make lectures more active. These include the use of:
Skeleton handout – Instead of providing students with full presentation slides, delete some words and let them actively fill in gaps during the lecture. They can compare with each other as a paired activity.
Physical movement by the educator – Using movement to maintain a presence while lecturing. Students direct their attention at educators as they move, and this creates a break in the lecture pattern.
Pause and chunk – Stop at intervals during lecture to check in with students, give some mini-activities, field or pose questions. Plan this to coincide with periods in which you would like students to engage in deep learning.
Questioning – Using questioning as a technique to engage students and make them think critically. Various techniques include using open-ended questions, giving wait-time (second-language speakers might need more time), and asking follow-up questions (for example, do you agree with this or that?).
Small Group Activities – Using small group activities to keep students engaged in the lecture. This could include peer questioning, note comparisons, think-pair-share, think-write-pair-share (great for second-language speakers, as they can write their ideas in their first language if they wish), and buzz groups, where small groups discuss certain questions or perspectives and share with the others.
Writing – Harnessing the power of writing could be a way to make lectures more active, and also a great formative assessment strategy. Examples include the one-minute paper where students can capture their ideas based on a question from the educator. This could be submitted or shared with whole group by volunteers. Another strategy could be 3-2-1, where students note, for example 3 – most important things they learned today, 2 – new things they want to try and 1 – questions they still have. The educator could use a Google form to collect the information for formative assessment.
Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3 – 7. Retrieved from http://aahea.org/articles/sevenprinciples1987.htm
Freeman, S., Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. & Wenderoth, M. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410-8415. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23776432
Meyers, C. & Jones T. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers