Creating Learning Spaces that Promote Active Learning
Learning can take place anytime, anywhere, and on any device. Learning is no longer confined to a physical time or location – it happens in spaces that transcend traditional, physical boundaries. These spaces support active learning and help students better engage.
What is active learning? Active learning is really just a teaching approach where learners are asked to become an engaged part of the learning process. This is not a new idea. When I was teaching high school English some years ago, having students act out parts in Romeo and Juliet, rewriting the ends of novels, or playing “Grammar Jeopardy” were all examples of active learning. Students actively participated in class, reflected on content in new and different ways, and had fun competing with one another over dangling participles.
It’s important to take a minute to give an example of what active learning is not: It is not the traditional, lecture-based class format. When students sit passively in a class or lecture hall, “catching” content that may or may not be relevant to them, the learner is often not engaged actively in the process. The lecturer might ask a question, check for understanding, or pause for questions, but most of the time today, teachers and faculty members are frustrated by students who are at least as engaged with social media, web browsing, or texting as they are with the material presented to them.
So, what is the value of active learning? Should we even care about this approach? Does it work? Educators are increasingly seeing the value of active learning. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Freeman, et al, showed that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.
The introduction of new technologies has provided us with almost an infinite set of opportunities to better engage learners in active learning environments. Today, these environments might involve pulling in an outside expert to provide a guest presentation on climate change. They might have an entire class join a web-based collaboration space, so that they can work in virtual teams, launch a video call, or review notes taken in that day’s class from the interactive white board. They might connect students to a class from a learning space in the library, from a dorm room, or within a traditional classroom, so that it’s easier to see and understand content being shared.
Schools, colleges, and universities around the world are increasingly using technology to create active learning spaces. The Rutgers University-New Brunswick campus has eight general-purpose active learning spaces, ideal for group-based learning. Plan Ceibal in Uruguay is using video technology to bring in English teachers from across the globe to help all their students learn how to speak English. And, organizations like iSchool are using wireless and video to provide students with hands-on experiences to develop better problem-solving skills.
These examples, among many others, showcase the power of active learning to enrich experiences inside and outside of the classroom and to boost student engagement across a wide range of settings and learning spaces.
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 “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” Freeman, et al. PNAS. May 12, 2014.