Convincing students to ‘actively’ learn

Clearly the cover image for this post is super cynical, but I know many teachers and academics would identify with the metaphor of the continual need to entice students to engage more in the courses they teach and deliver, as opposed to letting the natural love of learning being the ultimate intrinsic motivation. I’ve discussed before that I believe more discussion about metacognition will likely lead to greater engagement, a proposition supported by Kuhn who exhorts ’People must see the point of thinking if they are to engage in it.’ 

This post offers some practical messaging that you could use to explain to your students why they MUST be active in their learning. The first provides some theory on active learning, and following that are some resources you can use/adapt if they resonate with you. Both are in the second person as I have used these in courses.

The theory of active learning

When you actively engage with content, you are thinking about it. It is this thinking that forces the brain to assimilate, accommodate, or ignore what it is being presented with: the new information either confirms, adds to, or is not accepted as part of the existing schema on the topic. It is this schema that is then drawn upon when new information is presented, which greatly increases the efficiency of learning that new content. This is because the working memory, which has a limited capacity, is not as overloaded as it would be if there was no existing schema to connect to.

Very different to active learning is passive learning – an example would be just watching a video. Of course it is easier to be passive: it requires a lot less work, and you may even convince yourself that you are actually learning as well as you can because you are at least doing something, but the amount you can learn using a passive approach is limited, and most importantly, the ability to use what you have learnt at a later stage is likely to be significantly reduced.

Resources you can use

You will have noticed this image (below) in the week’s content. I will be continuously referring back to this image, because of how vitally important the message in it is. Let’s discuss some of the messaging. Which of the 7 reasons can you identify with? Which have you never considered as important to learning? If speaking out in a tutorial is something you shy way from, how can this information help you to alter that behaviour?

The excerpt and table below is from a course I have designed that has a significant EAL student cohort. Again, feel free to use/adapt.

Throughout the course you will be asked to complete a variety of activities. Some of the activities will be related to vocabulary building, others will be comprehension questions about the mathematics, some will be mathematic questions to practise the concepts presented in lectures, and others will be less directed and rely on your initiative to learn independently. But the key to successful learning is to be active. What this means is that the more you participate and challenge your understanding of the content presented to you the more likely it is that your brain will process the content in a more meaningful way.

Below is a comparison of the types of learning, with the explanation column discussing the benefits of active over passive learning:

No learningPassive learningActive learningExplanation
Not reading course introductory informationReading course introductory informationReading course introductory information and planning out a study scheduleBeing active in this area not only means you will have a good understanding of the course structure and what the assessments are, but it will also help you to organise your time and design a study routine – a key attribute for successful people.
Not watching videosWatching a videoWatching a video and taking notesWhen you take notes you force yourself to think about what was just said in the video. Your brain then evaluates if it understood it – this then provides you with an opportunity to decide your next step – do you continue, or go back over the content and try to connect the learning with what you already know.  
Not completing vocab activitiesCompleting vocab activitiesCompleting vocab activities and noting the words in lecturesNot understanding a word can affect the entire meaning of an idea. When you make a note of hearing the word in the lecture and try to remember the meaning, your brain is retrieving the knowledge and strengthening the memory, which makes it easier to remember the word later.
Not completing maths practice activitiesCompleting maths practice activitiesCompleting maths practice activities and addressing errorsIf you get questions correct, then great, but if you don’t, a good strategy is to return to where the content was taught and retrace the steps needed to be able to solve the question. If this doesn’t work then seeking help is the next step. It’s important to understand that if you don’t address the issue it may make understanding concepts harder further into the course – this is because learning is almost always sequential.
Not completing readingsCompleting readingsCompleting readings and making connectionsReadings are provided to deepen and extend the thinking behind the lecture material. Actively reading may involve creating mind maps or using another visual method of connecting ideas. The more you can connect ideas the deeper your understanding will be.
Not preparing for assessmentNot preparing for assessmentPreparing for assessmentIdentifying what you need to know to succeed in the assessment should be done well before the due date. This will give you time to organise yourself and see if there are knowledge gaps.
Not returning to previous contentNot returning to previous contentReturning to previous contentGoing back over what you have already learnt in previous weeks helps to strengthen memory and provides an opportunity to see how the content is interrelated. Both of these improve understanding. This strategy may only be half an hour a week, but it will be very powerful for your learning.

I’m Paul Moss. I am a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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