Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 12, 2015

Five tips: Getting the most out of Active Learning Classrooms

Group work in an Active Learning Classroom in UW Seattle Odegaard Undergraduate library.

Group work in an Active Learning Classroom in UW Seattle Odegaard Undergraduate library.

The Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) at Odegaard Undergraduate Library make for a great teaching and learning environment—but may be a little intimidating for some lecturers and students who have never used them before. ALCs are designed to foster cooperative and problem-based learning experiences. While ALCs are relatively new, more than two years of research and feedback from faculty and students who have used them are helping maximize their educational benefits.

Based on that research and feedback, here are some of the top tips to using the ALCs—courtesy of Janice Fournier, Research Scientist, UW Information Technology; Amanda Hornby, Teaching and Learning Program Librarian; and Louise Richards, Assistant Director, Odegaard Undergraduate Library.

1. Seek advice and guidance in adopting active learning strategies

Successful ALC instructors spend time thinking carefully about what active learning strategies they will incorporate in their classes and how they want to design student group work, with some starting course planning months in advance. ALC instructors cite research on active learning, fellow instructors, and campus teaching resources (Center for Teaching and Learning, Faculty Fellows) as helpful in their curriculum design process. One ALC instructor advises instructors to “revamp your curriculum in baby steps.”

2. Design activities that support course learning goals

Effective ALC instructors design course activities that engage students in the thinking and problem-solving practices of their discipline. One ALC instructor describes her design process: “I was trying to be intentional. What are my learning objectives? What are the three things I want them to come away with? How can I design an activity that will get this to play out?”

3. Orient students to the ALC and to active learning

ALC instructors communicate to students how and why to engage in active learning, explain that their course will be structured differently in the ALC and coach students on how to engage with ALC features.

One instructor says, “Help students understand why [active learning] is important; show them data about the benefits of active learning.”

4. Be intentional in use of group work

Effective ALC instructors design structured group learning activities that require student cooperation and ensure both group and individual student accountability. Ensure equitable student participation by creating defined group roles (note taker, time keeper, technology expert, etc.) or activities that require a variety of skills (drawing, written communication, oral communication).

An ALC instructor says all students benefit from this type of group work: “By the end of the quarter I had students from all over the world … who were normally hesitant be much more comfortable than in a cramped lecture hall. They stayed much more active as learners for much longer in the quarter.”

5. Minimize lectures

Truly embracing active learning teaching means minimizing formal lectures. Successful ALC instructors favor group learning activities that increase student participation and generate more opportunities for student-instructor interaction.

“In a lecture-based classroom, I am less engaged in class discussion. Having groups makes it easier for me to discuss in smaller groups about our views, which made it easier to speak up to the rest of the class,” one ALC student says. “We also got the opportunity to speak with the professor because she was able to check in to see what kind of ideas we were coming up with.”

Learn More

Get details about UW Seattle’s Active learning Classrooms, including how to schedule an event or course.

Read the complete research report: Active Learning in Odegaard Library: Report on Year 1 of UW’s First Active Learning Classrooms.