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Faculty Development Center

Active Learning: Engaging Students in the Classroom

The lecture is as effective as other methods for transmitting information. Most lectures are not as effective as discussion for promoting thought.

Donald A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures?

The truth of Donald Bligh’s assessment of the effectiveness of lectures is evident to most faculty who have both lectured and led discussions in the university classroom. Lectures have a significant purpose, and in his insightful book Bligh outlines methods of making lecturing as effective as it can be. But in general, lecturing promotes passive learning in students, who frequently are stimulated only to take down notes on the material presented with the hopes of remembering the major issues. To fully engage students in the classroom and compel them to reflect on and apply concepts or information being presented, students need to participate actively in the learning process.

“Active learning” is a general description for teaching strategies or styles that require students to participate in some way in class. While forms of interaction—such as discussion, dialogue, debate, and group work—are common in small classes, they are less frequently employed in large lecture courses, especially in the sciences. Professor Lynn Zimmerman of Biological Sciences, a recent Presidential Teaching Professor, addressed this issue in a Brown Bag workshop, entitled “Engaging Students in the Classroom: Rewards and Challenges of Creating an Interactive Learning Environment,” in which she examined general principles of active learning and provided specific successful examples from her own teaching.

The barriers and challenges to using interactive teaching strategies in large classes are numerous. As Prof. Zimmerman pointed out, students in large classes expect to be able to remain anonymous and passive—and are therefore unsettled when called upon to discuss material or answer questions. Perhaps the biggest problem for professors is the recognition that injecting discussion into lecture classes takes time—and therefore may interfere with the presentation of essential content.

But Prof. Zimmerman argued that a limited amount of time for discussion in every class has a positive effect on students’ learning. In her experience, students “learn more, learn better, remember it longer, and want to learn more.” In addition to outlining many of the rewards of using discussion in large classes—for example that because students are forced to think, the major concepts of a course will be reinforced and a stronger foundation for future work will be built—she also offered specific suggestions for injecting active learning into lectures. Some of her examples include:

  • beginning each class with a brief question and answer session;
  • learning students’ names (or using a class list or note cards);
  • calling on them at the beginning of class with questions about the previous lecture;
  • encouraging email questions—and bringing those questions into class;
  • and creating small group discussion opportunities.

These are only a few of the many suggestions she offered for energizing lecture classes and engaging students actively.

To borrow or watch a videotape of Prof. Zimmerman’s talk, please visit the Faculty Development Center. For more information on this topic, you may wish to consult the following books in the Faculty Development Center library:

Chet Meyers and Thomas B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, 1991.

Jean MacGregor, James L. Cooper, Karl A. Smith, and Pamela Robinson (eds.), Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Also of interest is Charles Bonwell’s Active Learning website.