active learning

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Actions of Their Own to Learn: Studies in Knowing, Acting, and Being

Shapiro, Bonnie, ed.
Sense Publishers, 2017

Book Review

Tags: active learning   |   learning   |   student learning
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Reviewed by: Angela Cowser, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Date Reviewed: October 1, 2018
Actions of Their Own to Learn: Studies in Knowing, Acting, and Being is an edited volume of fourteen essays which explore the question of what it means to take actions of one’s own to learn. Taking action to learn happens within both formal and informal settings; it also happens during the process of building new knowledge as learners pose questions about the world and design new ways to collect ...

Actions of Their Own to Learn: Studies in Knowing, Acting, and Being is an edited volume of fourteen essays which explore the question of what it means to take actions of one’s own to learn. Taking action to learn happens within both formal and informal settings; it also happens during the process of building new knowledge as learners pose questions about the world and design new ways to collect and analyze information to answer those questions (4).The researchers argue that “a conception of what it means to learn must be framed as part of a larger process of building understanding that involves more than the mind” (4). In this constructivist worldview, learning “is a process in which learners are actively involved in the mental construction of ideas using prior knowledge and experiences as a foundation” (6). Building understanding (can) include participants working simultaneously as researchers, teachers, and learners (5).

The book is divided into three sections: (1) the power and agency of the learner, (2) active learning with others to build knowledge and community, and (3) the environments that support active learning.

In section one, through the use of a mutual learning process, researchers themselves take action to learn and understand the emerging values of the communities they study. For example, White uses autoethnography (and a carbon footprint calculator) to document changes needed to reduce her carbon footprint. She then uses her learning to design a curriculum to help her students take action to reduce their own carbon footprints. As a Provincial Parks educator, Den Hoed challenged “top-down, political, disciplined” educational processes by using Mezirow’s basic theory of transformative learning to “teach for change.” In so doing, he helps his students transform sets of fixed assumptions and expectations to be more “inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change” (63, quoting Cranton [Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning, 2006]).

In section two, scholars who construct knowledge-building communities among disparate groups of learners (grade-school children, physics teachers, math students) have discovered that improvisational co-action, in which ideas “become taken up, built upon, developed, reworked, and elaborated upon by others,” enables shared understandings and learnings that are collectively determined: the class as a whole becomes “the body that learns” (138-140). Towers and Martin discover that improvisational learning, listening authentically to children’s ideas, and building trust helps both teachers and students evolve to see themselves as collaborators rather than competitors (12-13).

Finally, section three describes environments that support active learning, including classrooms where students are in control of decisions about how scientific inquiries will proceed, and another, where people come together and create film and photographs (photovoice) to educate, build awareness, and encourage political action. These processes help students develop a deeper connection with course content (208).

This book presents a variety of qualitative approaches (narrative, interviews, autoethnography, case study) to activist learning in multiple and variegated learning environments. The scholarship affirms teaching that is firmly student-centered, where teacherly authority is decentered, and power between students and teacher is shared throughout the life of the learning cycle.

Reviewed by: Mary Stimming, Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion
Date Reviewed: August 7, 2018
Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux is an engaging, enlightening, and empowering call to action. Though its focus is on why and how to transform higher education to meet the needs of today’s students and society, it offers commentary on innovative and effective pedagogy that will be of special interest to Wabash Center readers. If ...

Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux is an engaging, enlightening, and empowering call to action. Though its focus is on why and how to transform higher education to meet the needs of today’s students and society, it offers commentary on innovative and effective pedagogy that will be of special interest to Wabash Center readers.

If you only have time for a condensed version of Davidson’s recommendations for improving college teaching, read the “Ten Tips for Transforming Any Classroom for Active Student-Centered Learning” (263-67). Davidson lauds 10 techniques: Think-Pair-Share, Question Stacking, Everybody Raise Your Hand, Interview, Class Constitution, Collective Syllabus Design, Collaborative Note Taking, Collaborative Projects with Peer Assessment, Exit Tickets, and Public Contribution to Knowledge. In keeping with Davidson’s central thesis, these techniques serve to invigorate learning in college courses, but their ultimate value is that they best prepare students for life beyond the college gates.

Indeed, it is the demands of modern life that prompts Davidson to argue for radically revising the university. America’s system of higher education has reified, she argues, the vision of Charles Eliot, president of Harvard in the late 1800s. Eliot sought (most notably in his essay entitled “The New Education” from which Davidson takes her title) to transform America’s colleges from seminary systems to institutions designed “to train farmers and shopkeepers to be factory workers and office managers” (3). In pursuit of this goal, Eliot, and fellow educational reformers, established the university as we know it:

  • majors, minors, divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural and biological sciences), credit hours, degree requirements, grades, the bell curve . . . class rankings, certification, general education, upper-division electives, . . . professionalization (credentials, accreditation), graduate schools . . . financial aid, college entrance exams . . . tenure . . . school rankings . . . (35-36)

and more. By 1925, Eliot’s vision (shaped by his study of German and French models) dominated the landscape of American higher education.

Not much has changed, Davidson laments. These features continue to define the college experience for most Americans. But now, they come with anemic “teaching to the test” at all levels of education, crushing student debt, and graduates narrowly trained for specialties that are fast disappearing in the technology-laden world in which we live.

Against the current state of affairs, Davidson argues for pedagogy and universities to center on students and aim at preparation for life, not just careers. Davidson documents how the shift from the Industrial Age to our current age (which she dates at 1993 with the dawn of the Internet) has yet to be taken seriously by academics. Doing so, she insists, demands radical rethinking of the college experience.

To illustrate the types of changes she advocates as proper responses to the technological age, Davidson points to community colleges and initiatives at universities. LaGuardia Community College in NYC, Arizona State University, and The Red House at Georgetown University receive the lion’s share of her attention. And for good reason. Education at these schools is being rethought and retooled to serve the student and his/her future needs. Actually, as Davidson notes, community colleges have been doing this all along. Founded to serve non-elite students, community colleges succeed by proceeding “from a pedagogy of acceptance. Any growth constitutes success. The student is at the center” (57).

Although active learning and student-centered pedagogy benefit students, it is not risk-free. Fear of “losing status” causes many professors and institutions to shy away from adopting the mindset and support systems community colleges embrace. To illustrate the risks, Davidson recounts the story of Alexander Coward, formerly of Berkeley . . . formerly because allegedly his student-centered pedagogy did not sit well with his colleagues (208-210).

In addition to the aforementioned “Ten Tips,” those primarily interested in pedagogical issues should read Chapter 3, “Against Technophobia,” and Chapter 4, “Against Technophilia.” Within these two chapters, Davidson offers many, many helpful hints for how to use technology imaginatively and effectively in the classroom.

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The Blended Course Design Workbook: A Practical Guide

Linder, Kathryn E.
Stylus Publishing, Llc., 2017

Book Review

Tags: active learning   |   course design   |   hybrid classrooms
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Reviewed by: Steven C. Ibbotson, Prairie Colleges
Date Reviewed: July 6, 2017
For the faculty member transitioning a course from face-to-face (F2F) to an online or blended learning environment, Kathryn Linder’s workbook is a wonderful resource. After opening with a couple chapters reviewing the key components of backward course design, developing appropriate course learning objectives, and assessment, the remaining chapters provide a step-by-step guide for an instructor to convert a course from a physical to a virtual teaching space. The ...

For the faculty member transitioning a course from face-to-face (F2F) to an online or blended learning environment, Kathryn Linder’s workbook is a wonderful resource. After opening with a couple chapters reviewing the key components of backward course design, developing appropriate course learning objectives, and assessment, the remaining chapters provide a step-by-step guide for an instructor to convert a course from a physical to a virtual teaching space. The chapters cover a variety of topics including effective learning activities, assessment methods, creating a social presence, using and creating multimedia, and social media engagement.

Each chapter contains a short introduction to the pedagogical theory behind the topic (What Do We Know About…) followed by a series of guiding questions, worksheets, and templates for incorporating the theory into course development (A Step-by-Step Guide to…). After a summary of the key ideas, there are questions for faculty and administrators, followed by a graphic that illustrates course design steps and additions. Online resources are often noted for additional planning. An instructor or administrator is provided with all the tools and resources necessary for working through the process in a hands-on, orderly fashion.

The book’s main strength is its highly practical nature, highlighted by the ready-to-use worksheets, templates, and checklists for every step in the process. Not only does it explain the desired resources, it usually gives real-life examples of how the tool was used in a blended classroom effectively.

Another strength of this book is Linder’s ability to translate and explain technological tasks reasonably for the technophobe. Without talking down, she methodically explains technical components in understandable and achievable action steps for readers. Equally important, she recognizes that schools use different types of technology (for example, Learning Management System), and identifies the major software, programs, and platforms available, accounting for this variety in her instructions.

There is little to offer by way of criticism of the book. More than adequate appendices and glossaries complete an already copious amount of resources. The solid reference section supports the extensive research, clearly supporting the material.

Given the practical nature of this workbook and its many ready-to-copy worksheets, it is strongly recommended for faculty members transitioning a classroom course to a blended or online delivery format. Likewise, academic deans leading a group of faculty through a similar transition process will find this a one-stop resource, especially if they are able to partner with an educational technologist.

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A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice

Baepler, Paul; Walker, J.D.; Brooks, D. Christorpher; Saichaie, Kem; and Petersen, Christina I.
Stylus Publishing, Llc., 2016

Book Review

Tags: active learning   |   classroom management   |   constructivist and active learning theory
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Reviewed by: Marie Nuar, St. John's University, Rome Campus
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
This book examines a particular type of classroom organization known as the “active learning classroom.” This type of classroom is not a lecture hall, but rather, is a room where there is no clear front or back, where students sit in movable chairs around round tables that facilitate group work shared with the larger group via screens. The very organization of the classroom forces the professor to have their back ...

This book examines a particular type of classroom organization known as the “active learning classroom.” This type of classroom is not a lecture hall, but rather, is a room where there is no clear front or back, where students sit in movable chairs around round tables that facilitate group work shared with the larger group via screens. The very organization of the classroom forces the professor to have their back to at least some of the students all the time. This type of classroom interaction seems to be designed for larger class sizes, helping to transform a large lecture hall of students into a classroom where teacher and student interaction, as well as student-to-student interaction, is maximized. These types of classrooms have been shown to have a positive impact on students’ grades, which could be attributed to the room configuration inhibiting certain negative activities while encouraging positive ones. Active learning classrooms provide four main advantages: “immersion learning, the social dimension of learning, collaborative learning, and the performance aspect of teaching and learning” (16). Teaching in an active learning classroom is no longer just transmission of knowledge but a collaborative effort engaging the students for better and more long-term retention of knowledge.

The subtitle of the book is “History, Research, and Practice. The history of this method of teaching is covered in chapter one. The research that supports the practice is the focus of chapters two and three. Chapter two focuses more on the research aspects while chapter three focuses on the role that social interactions have in learning. The core of the book, chapters three through eight, gives practical suggestions on how to implement the teaching method, and presents common difficulties and how to overcome them. The last three chapters focus on how to help professors learn this method of teaching, a suggested methodology on how to study whether the change of teaching method had a positive impact on student learning, and what the future might hold for this teaching method.

The book advocates a particular physical organization of the classroom. This is not up to the individual professors, but to the institutions in which they work. Even if one does not have the particular physical layout advocated in this book, there are a number of helpful tips for professors who seek to more actively engage their students. With chapters titled, “Assignments and Activities,” “Managing Student Groups,” and “Assessment and Feedback,” it is easy to find practical suggestions on how to make the classroom less didactic and more engaged. Each chapter has helpful and clear subheadings that make it easy to scan for the topic that one needs. Many of these methods are helpful in the religious studies classroom to help engage the student for a greater learning outcome. The examples in the book range from the sciences through to the humanities, helping a humanities professor get ideas on means of implementing the method in their own classroom.

 

My teacher training focused on goals and assessment. When I conduct workshops on teaching and whenever I am asked for advice on teaching, I tell instructors to clarify goals and work backward. Two years ago I gave a presentation on technology in the classroom. I included a laundry list of ...

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