Judging from research literature and discussion groups, student passivity is alive and well in classrooms across the country. In light of this, how do we, as teachers, motivate students to claim responsibility for their own learning? How do we foster an environment of active learning where students are engaged and focused on the learning process instead of passively encountering course material with one’s grade foremost in mind?
In some instances, it may be a matter of addressing individuals’ learning styles, recognizing that students have different ways of learning and therefore respond differently to new material. We’ve seen this in our own learning styles inventories. Encouraging students to examine their learning styles may result in developing better learning strategies. (For instance, Felder and Soloman’s inventory offers specific strategies for active learning aimed at passive, or reflective, learners.)
Certain teaching methods are better geared for active learning, too. While a passive learner tends to be more comfortable with lectures, where information is presented and interaction is minimal, classroom discussion, in contrast, is a “preferred method . . . for promoting critical thinking, problem-solving ability, higher level cognitive learning, attitude change, moral development, and communication skill development.” (Vangelisti, p. 360) A teacher should be encouraging to passive learners in this situation, perhaps by using positive body language (non-verbal immediacy) or posing questions of various levels to draw out a potential response. (Of course, ultimately, the method must be chosen with the specific learning objective in mind. There will be times when a lecture is appropriate, for instance.)
While these considerations may be useful in fostering active learning in individual students, we should also look at the broader context. Barbara Mezeske, in her article Shifting Paradigms? Don’t Forget to Tell Your Students, http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tp/index.html, states that a paradigm shift has occurred in education, from teacher-centered teaching to learner-centered teaching. She writes, “In learner-centered teaching, the balance of power in the classroom is shared by the teacher and her students; content becomes not the end, but a means to promote learning; teachers become guides rather than experts; the responsibility for learning is shifted to the students; and evaluation is used to promote learning, not merely to generate rules.” She cautions that some students may still be operating under a teacher-centered paradigm and that it is up to their teachers to “guide” them through this change.
I wonder if we are already comfortable with this model. It’s interesting to note that everyone in class had chosen a “guide-like” metaphor as teacher for themselves. Other points raised by Mezeske have also been brought up in class—for instance, shared learning between teacher and students and a critical use of content.
And finally, Mezeske offers some guidelines in promoting an active learning environment: use reflective logs (as we are, just now!); solicit and share feedback often; reinforce that the course is about learning; and be flexible, accepting that any group of learners will have unique needs.