Active Learning


Last summer I was honored to share keynoting responsibilities with Nelson Mandela.  The occasion was the 26th International Conference on Improving College and University Teaching, held in Johannesburg (   One of the conference’s best sessions was led by Diane Halpern, a psychologist from Claremont McKenna College.


From her own experiences teaching and her knowledge of research in cognitive psychology, Dr. Halpern argues that long term retention of knowledge is dependent upon using it.  Use it or lose it!   “It’s what the learners do that determines what and how much is learned…. The single most important variable in promoting long-term retention and transfer is practice at retrieval!” 


It’s a successful conference when one has his instincts about effective teaching confirmed by solid research!   Home from the conference, I increased my resolve to make sure my students get even more “practice at retrieval.”   In addition to a few “low tech” changes in my teaching (e.g., team projects in class, more class discussion especially relating contemporary events with economic concepts, teams of students working in advance with guest lecturers to increase linkages between the lecturers’ “war stories” and our concepts), we were able to increase the quality, quantity, and convenience of “practice at retrieval” by utilizing our computers and the Internet.


Immediately after reading “the” assigned chapter in our textbook, my students are emailing me their “muddiest point” (i.e. the concept in the assigned reaching that they understand the least).  Students are getting practice-at-retrieval, and I’m reshaping plans for “tomorrow’s” class on the basis of their just-in-time feedback.


In another exercise, students share (in an electronic chat session) with the entire class their own one-sentence summary of the most important concept in my lecture.   (Since I’m teaching face-to-face, these restatements provide rich opportunities for classroom discussion, discussion that starts from where students are thinking rather than my more extensive and mature knowledge base.) 


During class (after lecture and feedback and discussion) I am asking students to breakout into small teams and develop PowerPoint presentations on how they would use the concept-of-the-day to solve an assigned problem: for example, how would they use the concept of comparative advantage to persuade their roommate to study for a biology test or attend a basketball game. 


After class, half of my students are asked to describe (in a paragraph) how they would apply the concept they’ve just “learned” to a specific challenge.   Each student then shares his/her answer with a buddy (the second half of my students) and a volunteer alum.   Over the Internet (because the alum is from off campus) the three people discuss and agree upon a single paragraph.  The paragraph is then submitted for my evaluation.  Both students in the group get the same grade.


The techniques being used in my class of 15 students can, often with groups of 6 rather than 3, be especially useful in much larger classes.   Involving students in the orientation of guest lecturers, in the evaluation of paragraphs submitted by colleague students, and in team projects is all part of the active learning process.


Throughout our teaching I believe we need to keep students retrieving and re-retrieving, then applying the concept .   Dr. Halpern urges that we regularly ask students to answer thought provoking questions such as—

·        What’s an example of the concept of the day?

·        How could your newly acquired knowledge be used to …?

·        Can you think of an analogy?

·        How could ….be used to ….?

·        What are the implications of …?

·        What would happen if …?


When time and small classes allow, these questions can be addressed during class to each member of the class.   Often, however, we don’t have the luxury of extra class time and small enrollments.  Students can gain from opportunities to reflect upon answers, to discuss the issue with others. 


 The time for active learning can be expanded by asking these questions of students before and after class.   The opportunity for collaborating learning can be achieved by asking students to submit “team” answers.   Professorial responses can be customized to each group, since answers may be framed asynchronously.   Not everything has to be accomplished within limited classroom hours.   When professorial reactions are in writing, students can return to them until they understand their fuller implications.   They can archive the “lessons” for another day.


Nelson Mandela said (to paraphrase)  “in the end, the only important thing in life is having a positive and lasting effect on someone's life.”  We can hope that many professors, using the new tools of the computer and the Internet, will be redesigning their courses toward more “practice at retrieval” and, consequently, a stronger lasting influence upon each student’s life.