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active learning
Education 24 March 2021

Attending a lecture should not be like watching TV

Active learning puts an end to students listening to lectures slumped down in their seats. Which is good, because the more you can get them to participate, the more they will learn. So how do you get students to join in?
BY Emma Sprangers PICTURE Merlijn Draisma

Six years ago, Pedagogical Sciences was the first programme to introduce active learning, a new teaching method that was also recently promoted by speakers at the VU Education Day event.

According to Agnes Willemen, programme director of the Pedagogical Science MSc, the idea is simple: encourage students to actively engage with the course material rather than having them just absorb information. The theory is that this improves students’ grasp of the material, increases their recall and helps them apply what they’ve learned at a later time.

But not every student is eager to ‘actively engage’, not least because active learning begins before a lecture has even started. It requires students to spend more time preparing for class, and they can’t just lean back for the entire lecture while their teacher talks. Students are expected to actively participate in class discussions – so no more waiting until that one person who always raises their hand chimes in.

Big adjustment

That can be a big adjustment, Willemen thinks. Especially for first-year students. “All of a sudden, the ball’s in their court. It calls for a lot of effort, and some may find that quite difficult. There are always students who just want to sit there, listen to the lecture and then decide what they want to do with what they’ve learned when they get home. And then there are students who have other priorities – some have a family to look after, or combine their studies with a demanding job in healthcare or education. Those students are not exactly thrilled about mandatory attendance and more prep work.”

‘Positive student evaluations don’t necessarily mean high-quality education’

Clearly, not everyone appreciates this teaching method. But, as Willemen stresses: positive student evaluations don’t necessarily mean high-quality education. “We see that students are better prepared now when they start their Master’s programme. They have a better understanding of the subject matter and they’re able to apply their knowledge effectively.”

Different strategies

For active learning to be successful, Willemen emphasizes that it’s important for teachers to use different strategies to engage different groups. Roughly speaking, there are three types of students: students who prefer to think about the material themselves and who benefit from cognitive activation; others who learn best when they can apply what they learn to their own lives – this group requires affective activation; and a third group who prefer to learn through a quiz or class discussion and require behavioural activation.

Ideally, a teacher would apply each of these three active learning methods to get everyone on board. “Teachers really need to be versatile", Willemen adds.

Even more tasks for teachers

That’s a lot to ask at a time when teachers are already having to radically change their approach as almost all education has moved online. This was also the consensus in the Zoom chat during the Education Day keynote address on the many wonders of active learning. Teachers were already struggling with excessive workloads long before the pandemic. Changing their curriculums and requiring more interaction with students would further increase their workload, people in the chat agreed.

active learning prof

But digital tools can also help teachers, Willemen believes. The shift to remote education has given a sudden boost to active learning. Resources such as Mentimeter, Perusall and Feedback Fruits, she says, offer new opportunities to promote active student participation.

More accessible

Marieke Slootman, diversity officer for education and assistant professor in the Sociology department, has also noticed that – in certain situations – students find it easier to participate actively in an online setting. “During classes on sensitive topics, with discussions on gender, exclusion and racism, for example, students sometimes find it easier to join in online. The Zoom chat is especially helpful: typing something in a chat is less daunting than raising your hand in a lecture hall.”

But Earth Sciences Master’s student Marc Heemskerk also sees the drawbacks of remote teaching. He interviewed several students about their experiences with online education for the Earth Sciences department. “The chat does make it easier to actively participate, but teachers often don’t read the chat during class. They’re too busy focusing on their lecture and only look at the chat during the break.”

Heemskerk also points out that students are sometimes afraid to use the chat or to unmute their microphones and ask a question, because they’re worried they might have missed something. “Sometimes students miss parts of a lecture because of a slow internet connection, because their teacher’s audio glitches or because their roommate is hoovering in the background. They don’t want to be the one to ask a question about something that has just been covered. During a face-to-face lecture, that interaction is much smoother.”

Less intimidating

Overall, the twenty students Heemskerk spoke to gave a higher score to active learning than to the standard ‘sit and listen’ teaching method. The students also told Heemskerk that actively participating is sometimes less intimidating online. Take presentations, for example: “You can keep your notes on hand now, and often you only see a small number of other people on your screen at any one time – not an entire classroom or lecture hall, like before.”

But Marieke Slootman also points out that others experience online presentation as less enjoyable. In her role as diversity officer, she is particularly interested in what online education can do to promote inclusivity. “For people with certain mental disabilities, the very idea that people can see you can be stressful. For them, having to talk in front of a camera only adds to that stress.” The same goes for shy people, who can also get nervous when active learning requires them to join in a discussion more frequently.

Different personality types

In programme director Willemen’s view, the best approach to active learning therefore depends in part on the student’s personality. “Extraverts get energy from other people – they need to exchange ideas to feel engaged. This group can now get the interaction they need in breakout rooms, for instance. Introverted student might prefer to listen. The best way to engage them is by using a cognitive approach rather than an affective or behavioural one.”

'Students are also responsible for their own learning process’

But the responsibility for getting everyone to join in with this teaching method doesn’t lie solely with the teacher, Willemen believes. “It’s also important that students figure out for themselves what motivates them, and what helps them engage with the material. As a university, you also want students to be responsible for their own learning process. So we will continue to assess how much we want to ask of students, and how much we want to leave in their own hands. They will also be responsible for their own learning process later on, just as teachers should be able to maintain a degree of autonomy over the content of their lectures.”

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