Avoiding the Pitfalls of Active Learning

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Active learning has become a rallying cry for education reformers and promoters of progressive pedagogy. It seems simple enough: if you want students to learn they need to be engaged.  We’ve all had the experience of reading a book or watching a movie and realizing we have no idea what just happened. For many students, this is what most of education feels like. So the way we change that is to get them active. 

While this seems simple on the surface, it is actually much more difficult than it sounds. And it is very easy for well-intentioned activities to end up being more confusing and frustrating for students than sitting and listening to the same old lecture you have been giving for years.

So before you teach an active learning session, you should spend some time looking out for the three pitfalls of active learning activity design.

Pitfall #1 Improper Alignment

It doesn’t matter how great your activity is, if does not tie directly to an expressed learning outcome, it is going to drift and take everyone offtrack. Be especially aware of this with new technology or an activity you saw on Pintrest.

When evaluating for alignment start by defending your activity’s relationship to the learning objective. If the objective is worded in student-center language you should be able to easily explain how the activity has them actually doing the thing in the objective. If not, you have an alignment issue.

Be sure to consider all of the tangents and blind alleys you can get taken down. Also, use this time to think about logistical concerns that could become replacement learning objectives. For example, when teaching coding classes online, I never realized how little middle schoolers knew about downloading and saving files in an orderly way. The learning objective went from “use an image downloaded from the internet to make my application more interesting” to “download and save an image from the internet in a way that I will be able to find it later”. 

Finally, remember the world is full of cool, interesting, and fun things, what makes them appropriate for your teaching is how they related to helping your students progress in their path. Anything unrelated to that, needs to be scrutinized and like jettisoned. Pitfall 2 will show us why.

Pitfall #2: Limited Resources

…oh to live in a perfect world where we have unlimited resources and control all of the variables. But of course we don’t. Your time, space, and physical supplies are limited and failure to plan accordingly will kill your active learning activity. Kindergarten teachers know this, that is why they are obsessed with limiting movement and carefully controlling resources. Make sure you have a plan for how physical space will be allocated, how students will get any materials they need (if electronically, make sure the files are accessible to them before hand). Most importantly, think through the timing of things and  don’t use overly optimistic–I’ll be home in five minutes, honey–timing. 

Winston Churchill said worry was the misuse of imagination. Now is the time to misuse your imagination. What is going to happen when a group member is sick? What if students don’t have pencils, pens, etc.? What if we have to give an important announcement or answer some unanticipated question? Worry away here, plan for the worst so that you know you can achieve what you want to achieve.

Finally, when thinking about resources, think about what part of the activity you could cut if you run out of time. When working with faculty, I find more often then not, the most important part of the activity is at the end. This makes sense. It is good dramatic pacing. It is also guaranteeing that you are going to be rushed to get to the most important part. We’ve all had the experience of going to a professional development workshop and spending 90% of the time fumbling through clumsy icebreakers and power point slides of peoples dogs and families, only to be told 5 minutes from the end: “Now this part is really important! We don’t have much time…but I really want you to see this slide, because this is why we are here today…and I know everyone has to go, but I’ll email this out and please look at it…” Don’t let this happen in your class.

Pitfall #3: Lack of Meaningful Feedback

Active learning rests on the assumption that students learn best when they are constructing their understanding from self-motivated activity that is supported by timely and meaningful feedback. Feedback is essential to this process. If students fill out a concept map, but are never told where they have mistakes or missed opportunities, they will not learn what you want them to learn. Having time and processes build-in to provide feedback is essential–even if it is showing an exemplar or doing an impromptu evaluation of some of their work, or a description of common mistakes that you notice or even anticipate. It is imperative that you provide them meaningful feedback that aligns with the learning goals. 

‘It Will Get Better’

Many years ago, I attended a masterclass with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. A student had asked him about his early experiences playing classical music. He relayed a story of one of the first times he had performed with a symphony and felt completely underprepared and out of his depth. He said he just kept repeating the mantra “It will get better”. Pulling off active learning is hard. It is putting yourself in a vulnerable position as an instructor, but the rewards are huge, so keep working at it. Don’t give up on an activity but keep coming back to these three key points: alignment,  resource management, and feedback. Eventually, your active learning activity will become a masterpiece.

This active learning pitfall prevention planner can be used to help you better prepare your active learning activities. It is designed for you to complete on your own and then has a section that you can use to get feedback from a peer.

Active learning planner link

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