Focus on Teaching and Learning Highlights Active Learning

by David Noffs

Several members of the Distance Learning Team at Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies attended Loyola’s Focus on Teaching and Learning (FOTL), a one day conference on January 10, 2018 at Schreiber Hall in Chicago.

The Keynote address, delivered by Dr. Therese Hutton of Seattle University, was entitled, “If I Could Only Fit in More Learning:” Making the Most of Your Classroom Time.

According to Dr. Hutton, teaching is akin to storytelling in many ways, and the traditional lecture, whether online or on-ground, is often more storytelling than lecture. In fact, according to Hutton, lectures have been making something of a comeback from a period of academic exile to in vogue medium, as millions of Ted Talks viewers can attest to.

Dr. Hutton described the stereotypical freshman as a passive learner who feels uncomfortable having to think or act in order to learn. They want teachers to “put” stuff into their heads for them and make them smarter! Yet while a small majority (51% according to Hutton) of teachers still use lectures as the primary teaching method or pedagogical approach, there is a growing awareness among educators that teaching is more than just storytelling. Rather, it is really about creating a rich and interactive learning environment.

Freeman et al. (2014) state that, “Active Learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert.”

But despite increasing evidence that Active Learning is an effective pedagogical approach in blended, online, and on-ground classrooms, many faculty remain resistant to its adoption. Goffe and Kauper (2014) cite the top three reasons teachers give for not embracing active learning as,

  • They doubt the benefits,
  • Lectures work, and
  • It takes too much time.

However, there is evidence (Freeman et al., 2014) supporting the effectiveness of Active Learning. Active Learning greatly reduces failure rates (by almost 10%) and increases retention of at-risk populations; thus, there is a potential for a social justice outcome as result of implementing Active Learning. In addition, Dr. Hutton noted that Ruhl, Hughes and Schloss (1987) found a significant increase, up to 13%, in student recall in active learning. Recall increased from 76.8% to 84.9% when a 45 minute class went from 100% lecture to 87%. Not only are the numbers compelling, but the social justice dividend is increasingly attractive to institutions like Loyola, where there are many advocates of Ignatian Pedagogy.

Some strategies for instructors in blended, online, and on-ground who practice Active Learning include:

  • Address inaccurate misconceptions directly. Despite good information provided in lecture-based learning environments, stubborn misconceptions endure! Dunbar et al. (2007) found that following instruction, students’ explanations of “Why seasons change” weren’t altered that much. Most students still believed the Earth was actually further from the sun during the winter and closer during the summer, even after being told the real cause.
  • To create good learning environments, draw on pre-existing knowledge of our students. This is also the second principle of Malcolm Knowles’ (1980) key principles of Andragogy (adult learning), which is worth noting for instructors who work extensively with graduate students and in continuing education. For example, instructors can ask students to describe their own experiences or pre-existing knowledge of the subject matter during the opening introductory online discussion forum. This could also be implemented in on-ground courses through the course website.
  • Engage in fewer topics more in-depth, rather than more topics superficially.

Some specific steps that instructors can take to implement Active Learning in both online and on-ground settings include:

  • Pause and compare notes with students as you go along. This can be done asynchronously online in discussion boards, or face to face with students during synchronous web sessions.
  • Have students make predictions based on lectures and readings.
  • Present students with two question quizzes throughout the course to test (not necessarily grade) immediate understanding and reinforce concepts.
  • Give students a pre-test before a module to assess their prior knowledge, then a post-test to see what they have learned.
  • Have students do “sorting” tasks. For example, use tables presented in course work and have students sort the items in tables and describe them during the process.
  • Create video productions using tools like PlayPosit or Arc where students play a video and when it is paused, they predict what will come next.

My key takeaways from Dr. Hutton’s presentation were that the concept of teaching as storytelling runs deep. We all have stories that can make a difference to both learners and teachers and we need to make time to hear them. We can fit more into our online and on-ground learning not just by “flipping” the content, but also by leveraging more effective and focused Active Learning.


Dunbar, K. N., Fugelsang, J. A., & Stein, C. (2007). Do naïve theories ever go away?

Using brain and behavior to understand changes in concepts. In M. C. Lovett & P. Shah (Eds.), Carnegie Mellon symposia on cognition. Thinking with data (pp. 193-205). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.       

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.S., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N. Jordt, H., &

Wenderoth, M.P. (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415                       

Goffe, W.L., & Kauper, D. (2014). A survey of principles instructors: Why lecture prevails. The Journal of Economic Education, 45(4), 360-375.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

Ruhl, K.L., Hughes, C.A., & Schloss, P.J. (1987, Winter) Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10, 14-18.

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