October 29, 2019
3 min read
Consider a typical university class. Students drift into the classroom. Some gravitate to the front of the class, some wander towards the back, and some do not attend. The professor lectures for 45 minutes, taking a few questions. The class is adjourned and students move to their next class. This daily pattern repeats itself until a few weeks or days before the exam when the students try to mug up everything. This is passive learning because students sit and receive information with little active engagement.
What's wrong here?
Until the exams, which could be months away, there is hardly any evidence of learning. How many students have understood what was presented in class? How many have registered more than a few phrases, and that too without comprehending? How many were tuned out altogether?
For those who took notes, were the notes imbued with meaning or were they mere dictation? We kid ourselves as teachers if we think most of our students understand the lectures most of the time. We all know how to nod as if we are listening attentively. However interesting we professors believe our lectures are, it's difficult to keep the attention of emotion-laden adolescents class after class, week after week, month after month.
What's the remedy?
In active learning, the student participates in the learning process. This engages the student's brain so that real learning can take place. Engagement and focus are maximised when students are actively involved rather than sitting quietly in a classroom. This is the basis for active learning; active participation engages the mind, which in turn promotes learning.
Attention gets focused automatically by external signals that are either urgent or of compelling interest. We can mandate attendance, but being present physically in class doesn't mean being present mentally. The classroom, therefore, must incorporate compelling external and internal signals that engage the students' minds involuntarily.
Real-time communication: Students should be able to articulate what they have learned in real time. In each class, all students must be called upon to apply what they have learned and communicate their responses orally. Nothing focuses the mind than being called and asked to say something coherent.
Flipped classroom: Students must acquire information before the class and use the classroom for interaction. Professors can assign short, focused readings, making it clear that students will be asked to summarise what they read.
Application, not just theory: For most students, learning abstract theories without relating them to tangible real-life examples or applications is folly. Active learning entails connecting what students learn to what they already know.
No last-minute mugging: You might ask, "Doesn't the exam measure learning, and why is it important for students to be learning continuously during the semester if they can quickly digest the material just before the exam?" The answer is simple: learning that is jammed into a short period just prior to an exam is quickly forgotten.
Use it or lose it: The benefits of learning decays unless what you learned is revisited frequently. Curricula and syllabi should be regularly revisited, applied and connected to what has previously been learned. Exams, the mainstay of passive learning, become powerful active learning tools if they are administered frequently during the semester rather than just once or twice.
Seven-minute rule for lecturing: People can muster the self-control necessary to focus on the lecture for up to seven minutes. Beyond that, they retreat to their inner mental worlds. If the professor needs to communicate to the students, it should be done in packets of no more than seven minutes.
Jamshed Bharucha is Vice-Chancellor, SRM Amaravati University