Are your students prepared for active learning? You can help them!
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”, the first one of the new Academic Year. I hope you managed to find some time to relax and recharge over the summer. Generally, I use this space to share ideas on how to do things well, sort of “best case scenarios”. But as we all know, in reality things are seldom ideal. Even with our best intentions and designs, the reality in the classroom can turn up pretty different. The example I want to share today is connected to my own work at Maastricht University, where we use Problem-Based Learning (PBL) as a signature pedagogy. As good as it sounds, in reality students are seldom inborn active learners and/or self-regulated learners. I’ve put down some main challenges I’ve encountered so far, in my work both directly with students and with tutors, and some ideas of how to tackle these challenges. I very much welcome your thoughts and suggestions, as usual, and hope you enjoy reading. Have a good new Academic Year!
Problem-Based Learning is an active learning, student-centred approach whereby learning happens through solving real-life complex problems. The learning experience is quite different from traditional teaching: there are (almost) no lectures, students work in small groups and teachers or tutors are expected to play the role of facilitators. The benefits are obvious, especially in the long run: students are in charge of their own learning, they develop their critical thinking and team working skills, thus becoming more prepared for the transition to the labour market. So far so good, almost too good to be true. And that’s because if we stick to the theory we actually take for granted the fact that students are prepared for this. And they are often not. Let’s see why.
What does active learning require from students?
There is no secret that PBL and all other active learning approaches are much more demanding from students compared to traditional methods, mainly in terms of skills and attitudes towards learning. Here are some of the aspects where students, especially when first faced to active learning, seem to struggle:
Formulating own learning goals and following through with independent study. While in traditional teaching the learning goals are given to students, in PBL (or at least in some of its purest variants), they need to come up with their own, for each problem they are solving. This requires understanding the problem well but also a certain frame of mind where one can assess what is necessary to solve it and make a plan of how to go about it (independently and as a group). All these seemingly easy steps are often new to students and something they intrinsically expect from us as educators.
Collaborative learning. We know all too well that students often need some convincing to engage in team work. Moreover, even when they do, there are many things that can go wrong, with a negative impact on both student learning and satisfaction. With group work being at the core of PBL, developing a very good understanding- at an early stage- of why we it and how to do it well is crucial.
Constructing knowledge (together). In the active learning classroom students are often faced with ill-defined problems and are expected to make connections between different sources and types of knowledge and construct meaning, in order to solve the problems. The level of complexity and ambiguity often proves to be a real challenge, as well as grappling with the idea that in many cases there isn’t one good answer.
Not being afraid of mistakes and learning from them. The education system, at all stages, still penalises mistakes, often with long term consequences. So it’s no wonder students are afraid of making mistakes, which often leads to lack of engagement. While we often say we want to develop an environment that promotes learning from failure, we find it hard to put this rhetoric into practice in the classroom in a way that, gradually, will change students’ mindset.
Problem-solving & developing recommendations for practice. Actually solving the problem requires the skills of using existing knowledge, combining it with newly acquired knowledge and adding a pinch of creativity. Moving from theory to practice is a step students are not very comfortable with and often do superficially. Formulating granular, practical recommendations seems to be a challenge and a skill that needs training.
Reflecting on their learning. This is a crucial companion for all the points above, and a prerequisite in becoming effective active and self-regulated learners. But again, it’s not something that comes easy, or naturally to many. It’s often seen as a superfluous exercise, in the absence of deep reflection which is a habit that needs to be built and takes time and patience.
Now that we diagnosed some of the main challenges, let’s try to think of some things we can do to support students. Some solutions can be implemented at the design stage and some need a quick reaction in the classroom. How (much) we should support students, especially in the active learning classroom, is a subject for debate, but for now I would just say in my opinion the right type of scaffolding, in the right moment, does not take away from students’ agency, on the contrary.
So, here is what we can do to:
Support students with setting learning goals and becoming independent learners
Making time in class to openly talk about how students learn (best), what obstacles they are facing and what type of support they need. Study skills and strategies might not be the subject you are teaching, but if you dedicate some time to it you’ll surely thank yourself in the long run.
In a PBL environment- providing guiding questions and tools to make sure students understand the problem well, with all its aspects. The more complex the problem, the more important this step is. This is the starting point for the entire learning process. “Practice makes perfect” fits well in this context.
Encourage curiosity- provide context, link learning- and specific new knowledge- with the “real world”, with things they are familiar with and care about. Make them want to go out there and find out more about the topic, while also discovering new ways of learning that work for them.
Demonstrate the value of collaborative learning
As most of the learning takes place in small groups, dedicate time to create a group identity; encourage students to talk about themselves, find how their skills are complementary. This sense of community will play a huge role in the learning process.
Facilitate peer learning. This can be tricky, especially because students often feel they come to university to learn from us, qualified educators, and not from each other. So it needs practice and support in giving and receiving feedback. We can provide rubrics, or why not discuss and co-create rubrics with criteria for feedback. We can also discuss feedback in class, so that students see good and bad examples and can internalise the value of peer learning.
Be ready to deal with various group dynamic issues. Be it students who don’t want to work together, free-riders, silent or over-talkative students, your role is to make sure that none of these issues negatively impacts the learning process. This takes some diplomacy and practice, but also talking to colleagues or shadowing them to see how they deal with similar situations. There is no silver bullet here, we need to be spontaneous, sensitive but decisive.
Get students started with co-constructing knowledge
Provide the right level of structure to enable students to start building knowledge. This can be a conceptual framework, some key themes or concepts or some questions. This scaffolding needs to be adjusted depending on students’ level and the complexity of the topic or problem, and at some point it will come off entirely- they key is to figure out when.
Work on your facilitation skills & support students with theirs. Building knowledge, especially collaboratively, requires good moderation and facilitation. Getting students to effectively build on each others’ answers, nudging them into diving deeper and changing perspectives without providing solutions, being OK with awkward moments of silence.
Putting your course in context. This means making- and asking students to make- connections to the real world but also to what they learned in previous courses. It really helps if you can coordinate and exchange practice with colleagues teaching in the same programme.
Really promote learning from failure
Don’t be afraid to talk about your mistakes. Yes, this is not easy, but it really helps modelling the behaviour we want from students.
Have students analyse mistakes they made and discuss ways to improve, thus turning the mistake into a learning opportunity. This can be particularly useful in the case of two-stage assignments, where they have the opportunity to do better for the final output.
Be intentional in what you grade and what you don’t. Provide low stakes (often ungraded) assignments that serve as practice and explain their role to ensure engagement.
Practise. Practise. Practise. This is all about turning theory into practical solutions and the best way to warm students towards it is to provide space and time for practice. Crowdsourcing. Brainstorming. Critically evaluating solutions.
Send them out in the real world to find out how things work in a certain sector or context and why they don’t work. This will help them find ways to use what they learned for making things work better. Bonus: it will help them start building their networks, which is crucial for their future careers.
Embedding a guest speaker or a project partner/ coach from the professional field in your course can provide students with a new perspective and enable them to work on their problem-solving skills.
Help students reflect on their learning
Embedding reflection at programme level works even better. Here is an example from Maastricht University of how to support students in becoming reflective practitioners.
These are just a few ideas based on my work and hearing other tutor’s experiences. Active learning requires a really fine balance between collaborative, self-directed and tutor supported learning and we cannot expect students to be ready to actively and successfully take up their role on day one. We need to start by talking to them, assessing their needs and coming up with the right mix of autonomy and structure (maybe we can call it “scaffolded autonomy”?) And we need to be ready to quickly adjust to class dynamic to make sure learning happens.
Failure: Learning in Progress (FLIP)- a great collection of activities to support learning from mistakes;
From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory- journal article by Paul A. Kirschner et al. discussing an expansion of cognitive load theory from individual learning to collaborative learning;
Let’s get to work with productive learning strategies: all-in-one, by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma, Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen- an overview of eight productive learning strategies that you can work on with your students;
Gamestorming: a useful resource for discovering various models and tools for group facilitation.