Rather than the transmission of predefined knowledge to passive recipients, teaching is increasingly designed to foster students’ active knowledge construction, by interacting with other students, classroom materials and the teacher. Research consistently shows that actively engaging with content (for instance by discussing course material, linking it to previous understandings, looking at it from different perspectives, and reflecting on one’s choices, motivation and arguments) leads to more effective learning than what is referred to as the “consumption of knowledge”. Yet, the design of university education does not always foster activating teaching, and this is reflected in student evaluations. This calls for (re-)designing teaching to (further) stimulate a diverse student body to explore relevant issues and research questions.
What are the university's objectives with this theme?
- Students participate actively in the educational process
- Students participate in small learning-communities and gain shared knowledge and insights
- Teachers use activating teaching to promote student engagement, which translates to higher student retention rates
- The design of educational programmes encourages students to progressively take responsibility for their own learning and become autonomous learners
What are the key aspects?
In activating teaching, knowledge is not predefined, but always enriched by interaction with teachers, students and classroom materials, and students progressively take responsibility for their own learning throughout their university careers.
There are at least three ways in which teaching can be activating:
- Activating teaching invites students to actively construct knowledge, for instance by teachers and students linking course content to prior understanding and looking at issues or questions from different perspectives. Teaching activities, ranging from asking questions during a lecture to mind mapping and (digital) classroom polls, reveal existing student understandings and can be used as starting points for further enrichment.
- Activating teaching invites students to interact with other students, teachers and classroom materials. Collaborative teaching activities as debates, think-pair-share, peer- or self-feedback are useful here, and are likely to enrich students’ understanding.
- Activating teaching also entails students progressively taking responsibility for their own learning. Larger assignments, in which students have more freedom to pursue individual interests at their own pace, require students to plan their own learning and also tend to trigger reflection on the learning process.
Changing role of the teacher
Activating teaching is more than adding assignments, activities and technological tools to a lesson or course, as activating teaching not only changes the role of the students, but also of the teacher. Activating students requires preparation before and reinforcement during class. Sometimes, it also entails resisting the impulse to “take over” when students appear to be struggling; typically, this shows that they are actively engaging with the learning process.
Designing activating teaching starts with thoroughly thinking about students’ needs and learning objectives. Starting with these learning goals, teachers should consider the different ways students could achieve these goals and design (inter)active teaching and learning activities in line with these objectives. In this process, the assessment design also deserves attention, as it is important that assessment is constructively aligned with the learning objectives and teaching activities. This way students’ learning is optimally supported (see also Biggs, 1996, and Chapter Assessment and Feedback HYPERLINK).
Learning to learn actively
The extent to which students will be actively engaged in class depends on what the teacher does and how the lesson is planned, but also on what students are familiar with. When students have little experience with activating teaching, or when they are confronted with different approaches to teaching and learning, they may express dissatisfaction at first. This signals that students may need guidance on how to learn actively. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how teachers and students can balance the regulation of learning. They highlight how providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating “constructive friction”) can support students taking increased responsibility for their own learning.
What are important questions?
- How do I motivate my students to come to class prepared?
- How do I activate students during my lectures?
- How do I keep students engaged in my blended learning set-up?
- How can I stimulate students’ independent learning by using ‘constructive friction’?
- How do I know what my students know?
- How do I apply group discussion in class?
How do we know we’re making progress?
Making progress comprises (re-)designing education to meet the different faculties’ objectives relating to Learning@Leiden, as well as keeping track of results. But how can you know that you are making progress? Summarizing the general process of educational design and specific models for curriculum re-design we propose the following three-step approach:
Step 1. Reformulate the (university’s) objectives into questions concerning the current situation (today) and the desired situation in 2025
Step 2. Make the answers to the questions measurable
Step 3. Use the answers as input for further (re-)design
1) To what extent do students have opportunities to actively participate in lectures and seminars today and in 2025? Examples of measurable answers: students have (x) opportunities for dialogue, presentations, discussions, role play, practice and apply theory
2) How does the faculty offer opportunities and spaces for small learning communities to thrive today and in 2025? Examples of measurable answers: there are x suitable (break-out) spaces for student group work
3) To what extent do teachers know how to activate students today and in 2025? Examples of measurable answers: (x) percentage of lecturers have Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO)
4) How are students supported in becoming autonomous learners today and in 2025? Examples of measurable answers: (%) students have immediate access to study skills support; study skills practice is embedded in (x) courses; students can freely allocate (x) EC
Different websites offer examples of a range of activating teaching practices (“activerende werkvormen/didactiek” in Dutch) for university teaching. Examples include:
Karel Roos (ICT coördinator at ICLON) has made an informative animation about activating teaching and learning during lectures
The first and second year bachelor courses in EU law have large working groups, where students can ‘hide’ behind active students. Making sure students come prepared, is a challenge. Lecturers, among which Dr. Armin Cuyvers, have experimented with using obligatory prior submissions and peer-review of the take home questions, to improve the preparation as well as the interaction. They experience a higher level of (academic) discussion as well as fun in the working groups.