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5 active learning process fails – and how to avoid them

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on October 24, 2018
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By 2022, 75 million jobs will be gone, taken over by technology and AI. That’s according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2018 Future of Jobs Report. But the news is actually good – at the same time 133 million new jobs will be created. So it comes down to this: will today’s college and university students be ready to fill them?

Analytical thinking, complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity – these skills are becoming more and more important. But they’re incredibly hard to master if most of your day involves sitting in large rooms being lectured to.

That’s where active learning comes in. Not only has it been shown to have a positive impact on student learning, the WEF flagged it as a top trending skill for 2022.

So then why do so many postsecondary classes still look eerily similar to the classes of 50 years ago? It’s not a simple question – exploring it could sustain dozens of graduate theses. But one factor that seems clear are the fundamental misunderstandings of what exactly active learning is – and what it isn’t.

Looking to get your active learning strategy on the right track? Here are a few misconceptions about the active learning process that might be plaguing you – and some solutions.

Style over support

As a university student in the ’90s, I had one class in our department’s newest classroom, decked out with all the latest and greatest tech. We had tables on wheels, a few Mac® computers and even an interactive whiteboard. And yet we used hardly any of it. Most days we sat listening to the same lecture that our prof had probably been giving for years.

It’s 25 years later, but this still happens. A university gets the budget to create a stunning active learning classroom – with all the tech tools and flexible seating money can buy. But when the room gets used by real professors and real students, lectures and PowerPoint® presentations still rule.

INSTEAD: Don’t just invest in spaces – invest in people. Get buy-in from faculty on what they need in an active learning space before you create them. Offer flexible training that doesn’t just focus on technology bells and whistles – instead share concrete ways to use tools to deepen student learning. And to keep up the momentum once new spaces are in full swing, identify mentor faculty who can support others and consider creating active learning groups who can lead the way.

Avoiding active learning process fails

Building without scaffolding

Institutions making the shift to active learning sometimes meet resistance from an unlikely group – the students. In many ways, lectures are easier. You show up to class, sit near the back, passively consume information and leave. The shift to active learning – where students are given far more responsibility for their own education – can be bumpy.

The problem is exacerbated when the pendulum makes a huge swing, and students go from no control to full control. Leaving students to figure out everything on their own is like designing a skyscraper and then trying to build it without scaffolding. Skills like collaboration, creativity and problem solving don’t always come naturally – especially if students’ educational career hasn’t prepared them.

INSTEAD: Give students the support they need to succeed. Don’t make assumptions about what students know or don’t know – ask them for their input and their background experiences. Consider whether tapping into collaborative processes – like project-based learning, design thinking or agile – could help. Here are a few more ideas on how to overcome active learning fear.

Download our free eBook to get practical checklists, handy guides and other  resources to help you create amazing active learning spaces that enhance the  student experience.

One-size-fits-all approach

Lecturing is often labeled as active learning’s opposite, so it’s easy to see why it’s become a dirty word in some departments. But when professors feel like they can never address the whole class, instruction can become imbalanced.

The key to effective active learning is putting the student at the center, and professors need a wide range of tools to make that happen. If certain ways of teaching are off limits, there’s a risk that faculty will decide that it isn’t worth it and revert to old ways.

INSTEAD: Encourage professors to use a variety of strategies in their classes – collaborative warm-ups, reflective exercises, peer feedback, real-world projects and, yes, mini lectures as needed. Shift away from an all-or-nothing mindset about activities. Consider how the traditional lecture can be tweaked to support the active learning classroom.

Higher ed classroom to support active learning

High-stakes absences

A student I once had in a first-year communications course had a chronic problem with absences. This wouldn’t have been noticeable in a 400-person lecture hall, but my small class put a premium on student participation. She was motivated to learn, but her complicated life as a single mom kept throwing her curve balls whenever her kid was home sick from school or had a PD day. We muddled through, but it was an ongoing issue.

Active learning is just that – active. When the breakthroughs come, they come in class – you can’t borrow someone’s notes and catch up later. But there needs to be a solution for times when absences are unavoidable – otherwise too many students will be penalized for circumstances beyond their control.

INSTEAD: Consider letting students call into class from home rather than attend in person, if needed. As remote work increases worldwide, software and hardware tools that erase distance and enable collaboration anywhere are becoming more common. Equip your spaces so students have a failsafe if they’re sick at home or traveling for athletics. Plus professors have the option to teach when they’re out of town for research or a conference (here’s how one UNC professor does it).

Mismatched design

Have you heard the one about the state-of-the-art media table that became a place for students to ditch their jackets? Or the video conferencing system that ended up collecting dust in the closet. If you’ve been working in postsecondary education for any length of time, you probably have a story about a purchase not living up to its promise. The issue is almost always a mismatch between goals and execution.

Active learning is easier when space suits the purpose. It’s not impossible to overcome an ill-suited space, but it’s not easy. When active learning tools fail, the issue isn’t just the waste of precious budget dollars. It’s also the roadblocks you’re creating for students and instructors who need to the right tools.

SOLUTION: Before any department buys anything, ask some questions. What’s your mission? What story should your spaces tell? What will pave the way for effective teaching and learning? Then consider all the elements of effective active learning spaces, and decide which of them fit with your specific goals.


Free active learning eBook

Are you developing innovative new spaces for students, or do your current active learning classrooms need a refresh? In this eBook, you’ll find practical checklists, handy guides and other resources to help create amazing active learning spaces on your campus.

Get your eBook

Topics: Active Learning