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Fall Gleanings: Active Learning in the Class

If you’ve been teaching more than a few days, you are undoubtedly aware of the plentiful and powerful arguments for active learning. (If you’re not, or are still skeptical, a great place to start is the excellent How Learning Works).  This books served as the foundation of the yearlong faculty learning community about best teaching and learning practices that I co-led for several years through our university’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.

Of course, being convinced that active learning surpasses lecturing alone is not enough to transform your classes!  I am always on the lookout for ideas and inspiration, and sometimes I just need to be nudged away from my comfort zone of lecturing.   A helpful guide is Vanderbilt University’s website covering Classroom Assessment Techniques.

Teaching conferences can be a great way to glean good techniques and be inspired at the same time.  I was lucky to be able to attend EconEd in October, and came home with an iPad full of New Year’s teaching resolutions.  In order to share the wealth and inspiration, I thought I would summarize some of my favorite talks that focused on Active Learning. Videos of the conference presentations are linked in each summary below.

Betsey Stevenson (U. of Michigan) opened the conference with a reminder about the crucial importance of students seeing themselves in our examples and textbooks.  As effective as active learning is, in the end, Stevenson argues that we lose students when we fail to make our classroom, examples and materials inclusive and diverse.  We have tremendous power to disrupt classroom hierarchies when we do so.

Eric Chiang (FAU), author of Core Economics  spoke about how he livens up his classes by making case studies and examples personal- and how the simple act of sharing our own (silly, memorable and even embarrassing) stories that relate to our discipline can engage students beyond measure. Eric shares stories about his cats’ decisions… and even about what went wrong when he made an appearance on the TV game show “Holey Moley”.

One component of many active learning classes are video tutorials.  These video tutorials can be an excellent way to support more robust students learning- and leave more time in class for complex questions, problem-solving and discussion.  Dave Anderson (Centre College), author of author of Economics by Example argues that to reach more students, we must teach a topic from at least three angles.  Lectures and textbooks are not always enough (especially if students don’t always read the text!)  Anderson makes his own videos, but told us that it’s not necessary, and sometimes more fun to have a film festival where students make a list of hardest topics, then they find their favorite video that explains it.  One lecture day is then devoted to watching the student video choices, and everyone votes on the best (which can then be saved for future class use!) 

Scott Houser (Colorado School of Mines), shared his practice of introducing ethics questions into his classes.  He has found that even the most quiet, least-engaged classes roar to life when a simple ethical question is asked. These deeper questions require more class time than the simple calculations and definitions, but they can stick with students beyond the confines of the class.  Indeed, the space and time for activities like this is one of the key benefits of the active learning classroom.

Phil Ruder (Pacific University) presented his work with the Team-Based-Learning approach (see for more)  The TBL framework is worth looking at for its excellent ability to support and help the instructor deliver a definitely active classroom.  Through permanent group accountability and short daily individual and team quizzes, students come to class much more prepared to engage in deeper material.  “Application Exercises” which foster higher-order thinking and reasoning skills are interspersed with mini-lectures on topics that quizzes reveal need more attention.  TBL is highly structured and requires a bit of up-front time investment, but I am a convert. My upper-division courses have been retrofitted to a TBL format, and I’ll never go back.  (P.S. I’m happy to share my experiences with you if you’d like to reach out, I’m at

Do you have ideas you’d like to share?  Questions about active learning? Share them here.

Happy Teaching!

Solina Lindahl, Cal Poly State University (San Luis Obispo)#

1 Reply

This is a great post!  Thanks Solina!

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