Tag Archives: active learning

How can I do all this new stuff and still cover my syllabus? (RB & RF)

This question is the first one we get in just about in every workshop we give. Everyone worries that active learning exercises and other learner-centered methods will take too much time, and important course material won’t be covered. It’s a completely understandable fear, but there are some techniques you can use to do all the learner-centered teaching you want without sacrificing coverage of course content, and maybe even covering more.

Reduce coverage of nice-to-know material. Write learning objectives and use them to distinguish need-to-know from nice-to-know course material. Need-to-know material directly addresses your learning objectives and may be on your assignments and tests, and nice-to-know material doesn’t and won’t be. Make sure you cover all of your need-to-know material, and put nice-to-know material in any remaining time you have.

Felder, R.M. (2014). Why are you teaching that? Chem. Engr. Education, 48(3), 131-132. 

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (Chapter 2). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reduce in-class coverage of material to be memorized. If all you want students to do with information is memorize and repeat it on exams, put it on handouts or study guides to be read outside class, and quiz the students on it in class or online.

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (p. 34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keep in-class activities short. Most activities should take between 10 seconds and three minutes. As few as two or three activities in a 50-minute class can make a huge difference in your students’ learning without seriously damaging your content coverage. If you want students to do something that will take more than three minutes, break it into chunks and process the chunks separately.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. Active learning tutorial

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (Chapter 6). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Flip some course content. Present some course content in interactive online tutorials and self-tests before class, and use the class period for active learning that builds on the online material.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2015). To flip or not to flip. Chem. Engr. Education, 49(3), 191-192

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (pp. 142-146). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Use handouts with gaps. Put your lecture notes on handouts interspersed with questions, incompletely labeled diagrams, and skipped steps in problem solutions. Have students read straightforward material themselves in class and ask questions rather than lecturing on everything. Use active learning to fill gaps.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2015). Handouts with Gaps. Chem. Engr. Education, 49(4), 239-240. 

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (pp. 81-84). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Selling active learning to your students (RF)

When Instructors start using active learning in a class of students who aren’t used to it, the students generally don’t all welcome it, and some may be resistant or downright hostile to it. A key to defusing the resistance is to give them some advance preparation.

At the beginning of a class in which you’ll be using active learning, explain to the students what you’ll be doing, why you’re doing it, and what’s in it for them.

Before I retired from full-time teaching, my first-day sermonette about active learning went something like this:

Here’s how this class is going to work. Every so often I’ll stop my lecture and give you something to do—sometimes individually, more often in small groups—related to what I’ve been talking about. You’ll have a short time—as little as 10 seconds, as much as three minutes—to answer a question, begin a problem solution, carry out the next step in a derivation, or whatever it may be. I’ll stop you and call on one or more of you to share what you came up with, and then resume my lecture when I’ve gotten what I’m looking for or something even better.

So why am I doing this? I’m doing it for your benefit. The things I’ll ask you to do in these short activities will be the same things I’ll ask you to do on your assignments and exams…the hard parts. I have a stack of research proving that students taught this way have an easier time on homework and get better grades on exams than students taught with traditional nonstop lecturing. If any of you would like to see that research, let me know—I’d be happy to share it with you. Any questions?

You’ll probably never have a student who asks to examine the research, but offering to show it generally convinces all of them that you’re serious, and they’ll sit still for active learning long enough to see that you’re telling the truth about its benefits. If anyone ever does ask to examine it, refer them to:

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.