Foster Student Success with Active Learning

Foster Student Success with Active Learning

Traditional lecturing, regardless of delivery mode (e.g., in-person, synchronous online, asynchronous online), is a passive experience that may not facilitate optimal student learning.

Learning is optimized through active learning experiences, which can be interspersed in traditional lectures (see the K. Patricia Cross Academy Techniques Video Library and 15 Active Teaching Activities to Energize Your Next College Class). Active learning experiences can build community and a sense of being included, particularly when students work in pairs or 3-4 person groups and get to interact and know each other as individuals (see Harris and colleagues’ article on using online active learning to promote inclusive instruction and CETL resources Think-Pair-Share and Powerful In-class Break Out Groups). Evidence suggests deliberate, in-class practice in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses reduces gaps in exam scores and pass rates between undergraduates from low-income and/or underrepresented minority backgrounds versus undergraduates not from low-income or underrepresented minority backgrounds (see Theobald and colleagues’ findings).

Here are some low-impact ways to incorporate active learning in your teaching:

  • Build community in your classroom by inviting student insights whenever feasible. To promote full buy-in, involve your students in identifying the conditions for learning that everyone will be responsible to support.
  • Support meaningful conversation, critical thought, and transformative learning by requiring each student to demonstrate specific outcomes with a method that makes sense for your course (e.g., polls, brief writing, posts, worksheets). Communicate clearly before and after the learning activity how the activity aligns with the learning outcomes students are demonstrating. Explain how the active learning experiences (and other course components) are designed to help your students apply concepts and practice skills (see CETL’s resource Syllabus Alignment with Active Learning Rubric).
  • Articulate the relevance and importance of active learning to course success and to developing employer-valued skills (see CETL’s Rubric for Implementing Face-to-Face Active Learning). It may be meaningful to students to learn how you apply the course concepts and skills in your work and life. Being transparent about the purpose of the active learning experience, the steps students need to follow, and the criteria for success is associated with student success (see Winkelmes’ resource Transparent Instruction and Its Impact on Learning).
  • Help all students recognize you value them.
    • When possible, learn and use students’ names and the pronouns they use.
    • Treat all students with dignity and respect. Verbal and nonverbal behavior matters. Use language and examples that continually invite multiple views and perspectives.
    • Communicate confidence in your students’ ability to meet high standards. Frame feedback by affirming strengths as well as areas to improve. Show students you care about their success and are willing to help them succeed.
    • Use inclusive language when communicating with students. Here are some templates for possible messages, informed by Stephanie Fryberg’s work on how best to inclusively engage a diverse student body:
      • Sample Message to Individual Student: Hello X, I know this is a challenging time in the semester for everyone. There are many people who want to see you succeed and I am one of them. Please know that I want to answer all questions you have about our class. Thanks for being part of our class. Your voice and your success matter.
      • Sample Message to Whole Class: I am sending this message to our class community to mention our collective success. A few students haven’t joined us in class recently. The success of everyone matters here at UWM. Please reach out to others you know in class, encourage everyone to continue and let me know how to help. All of us who work at UWM want to see each of you succeed. If you or someone you know has questions, please let me know. I’m here to help find the answers.

Two STEM instructors offer advice on how they made their courses more inclusive in this article.