Creating a space where students can actively learn is the goal of every educator from kindergarten through college. The idea is that we learn best when we take part in the process instead of just sitting and reading out of a textbook or listening to a mundane lecture. At its core, learning is not an exercise in passive absorption — students need to develop meaningful connections with the material if they are to remember it.
What is and isn’t active learning? This question seems simple, but it’s a bit complex. Many teachers, especially those new to the profession, believe that active learning simply means students need to have fun in class while making some connections to the content. However, go into any upper-level college classroom, and you are not likely to see those students playing fun games. But you will still see a classroom that is full of active learners.
Active learning is not simply a physical interaction with the content but rather a deeply engaged mental interaction with it. If you think about a topic that you’ve wanted to learn about, you likely didn’t create a game to learn about that topic — you were actively engaged from the start simply due to curiosity or a sense of wonder.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever had to memorize words or concepts that you did not find interesting, you likely had to create a game to help you remember, something like flashcards where you quiz yourself or a friend and make a small competition out of it.
Let’s look at some ways that we as teachers can help our students become actively engaged learners.
4 ways to engage students in active learning
1. Make learning a game
We mentioned that active learning isn’t just about games, but that doesn’t mean that games don’t have any place in the classroom — quite the opposite! Games increase intrinsic motivation and help students develop a positive mindset for what they’re learning.
Games can be simple or complex. Many math teachers create games for addition or subtraction using simple playing cards. But you can also find online games for virtually any subject to keep your students engaged. In any case, games can help students remain focused for extended periods of time — more so than traditional formats like a worksheet.
The concept of gamification is not necessarily new. But with the proliferation of technology in the classroom, teachers have new options for engaging learners. For example, platforms such as Classcraft let you create entire worlds where students are learning content by completing quests, fighting bosses, and earning rewards for their avatars. This new way of learning can help reach students who might not ordinarily have an interest in school.
2. Make learning hands-on
People learn best by doing. By providing ample hands-on opportunities, teachers can more effectively engage students in active learning. Even something as simple as passing around a physical model or arranging a lab in a science class is going to be more engaging than simply having students read about an idea or listen to a lecture. When students have a chance to physically interact with the material, they’re going to make lasting connections with it and remember those experiences for much longer than they would otherwise.
For example, if you’re teaching about the Civil War, consider making your history class come to life with a simulation — complete with battles, trade, generals, and soldiers — that accompanies traditional learning methods like reading and note-taking. And if you’re teaching physics, biology, or chemistry, your work is essentially cut out for you — labs are becoming standard practice in the natural sciences because they help students develop essential skills and a better understanding of the material.
Active learning teaching strategies like this work in almost any classroom, so get creative! However, keep in mind that there’s no need to compromise traditional learning methods for engagement — you can easily have both.
3. Collaboration and debate
Providing opportunities for students to discuss a topic and even debate one another is a great way to increase active learning in your classroom. When you ask students to discuss a topic or defend a point of view, you force them to think more carefully and to seek out evidence in support of their beliefs. It also opens the floor for students to question each other respectfully. This is all in contrast to traditional lecturing, where students are free to check out at any point and are rarely required to participate.
Collaboration also creates an environment where students must consider more than one perspective. They may have an idea about a concept in their head, but when they discuss it with a few peers who have different ideas, it might change their original perception.
Not only is this an active learning process, but it’s also a great way to clear up misconceptions and bring them to the forefront. When you ask students are to collaborate, you encourage them to provide evidence to support their ideas and learning. If the evidence is not there, it often can help push a student to learn more about the topic so that they can back up their ideas.
4. Give students a choice
When possible, allowing students to explore areas of interest can be extremely beneficial and can lead to an active learning experience that is not normally attainable. Every student has a set of interests. By allowing them to explore those interests freely, we give students opportunities to actively engage in learning about the topic.
For example, if your class is learning about climate change, you might give students a range of topics to explore, like fossil fuels, the greenhouse effect, or the impact of the changing environment on wildlife and habitats. By providing a variety of topics that students are free to choose from, you ensure that students are learning about the core topic but examining it from an angle that actually interests them.
The other benefit of giving students choice is that they can take ownership of what they’re learning about. When given a homework assignment, most students (especially those in high school) typically groan and complain because they do not have any choice in how to complete it or to learn about the topic — they’re each handed the same “boring” assignment to complete in the same way by the same deadline.
However, when students have some freedom of choice, even for homework, they can take more responsibility for their learning and actually enjoy the process.
The bottom line on active learning
Students learn much more effectively when they’re actively involved in your class. For teachers, this is really all about being creative. Try new ideas, lessons, and approaches to teaching — be flexible in your planning and be intentional about incorporating active learning into your daily teaching. To do this, you must think a bit like your students and consider what it’s like to be in their shoes, sitting in class after class from morning to late afternoon. Strategies like gamification, hands-on learning, collaboration, and choice of topic can all help students to actively engage with content that they ordinarily might not get excited about. So take a risk and try something new!
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