A new form of teaching dubbed “active learning” has started to slowly make its way into a variety of classrooms at the University of Michigan.

This new model attempts to engage students more deeply with content through more mandatory participation in discussions and small-group work. This operates in contrast to the traditional “passive learning” technique used in the typical lecture format.  

Students often admit to missing their packed, 300-seat lectures or losing their attention span. LSA sophomore Victoria Sheetz said she is barely awake when she attends lectures.

“I constantly find myself falling asleep due to the monotonous structure of my lectures,” Sheetz said. “A lot of classes have aspects of repetition that don’t make the learning new and exciting. Sometimes, a professor will show us a YouTube clip or a segment from a television show, but more often than not you can expect the same structure every time you attend. A lot of the time, the simplicity of the lectures rarely leave any room for discussion. I feel like I would retain the information better by learning it myself.”

The University will attempt to broaden its usage of the novel model with the help of a recent $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Cindy Finelli, the director for engineering education research at the University, will work with a group of professors –– Maura Borrego, Jenefer Husman and Michael Prince –– in attempt to research the fundamentals of active learning and distribute the findings to U-M faculty. Finelli hopes the findings will bolster student-classroom participation and communication.

“When instructors successfully use active learning in a classroom, students can learn the material more deeply and apply principles better in different contexts,” Finelli said in a press release. “Their self-confidence and their ability to communicate with each other can improve, and they often begin to identify themselves as future engineers instead of as students just taking a required course.”

In some classrooms, active learning can already be found in the required discussion sections of many STEM-based classes, such as organic chemistry, physics and biology. In a similar way, writing workshops serve this function through essay and short story analysis during class discussions, in addition to peer-reviewing classmates’ work.

LSA sophomore Sofia Salinas has observed the active learning approach in two of her classes, Introduction to Anthropology and Creative Writing, but she said she had mixed thoughts about the changes.

“I feel like the active learning isn’t successful in my anthropology class. In small groups, we get distracted and talk about other things. I would rather have the GSI go over things that we find confusing. However, I do find it engaging and think it’s healthy to build relationships with classmates and bounce ideas off of each other, but I would also like some more structure,” Salinas said. “In my creative writing class, I like talking about the readings. It helps a lot actually. It helps me understand better –– hearing other people’s ideas and perspectives. But I don’t think it would work for chem or math, because I think that with those classes, having the professor go step-by-step with the problems will help you, rather than trying to figure it out with other confused students.”

On the other hand, LSA sophomore Kendall Johnson praised the honors study group offered by her Structure and Reactivity class. She said she found the option to attend the group that meets in the classroom once a week for two hours necessary for success in the class.

“We don’t have any class time for assignments –– they pretty much have to be complete by the time you come to class. We peer-review, though, and quick fixes are allowed. Overall, you kind of have to know what you’re doing in order to participate in class discussion,” Johnson said. “It’s not boring, and it’s definitely a lot of learning and practicing the material. I’m not a huge chemistry fan, so I wouldn’t call it the most engaging or exciting, but that’s part of the reason I wanted to do the group. I wanted to study and work in a way that would make sure I really got to know the material in the hopes that it would help me when it comes to the actual class and tests.”

Public policy senior Tom Aiello agreed that active learning has been a positive addition to his University courses. He thinks it’s improved his understanding of class materials. 

Active learning is a good way to break up otherwise monotonous lectures and try to explain complex concepts in my own words,” Aiello said. 

A downside of active learning is that the format is enacted through another class, thus failing to replace the traditional lecture model. Though it encourages students to interact more intimately with the content, it increases pressure on students to participate.

In the case of the second-year Italian program, for example, the entire course is structured as a “flipped-classroom.” This requires students to complete online homework and grammar lessons alone, and in class employs group-work that spans for the entire 50 minutes.

Prof. Michela Russo, one of the multiple second-year Italian instructors, said she finds active learning beneficial for language students because it mirrors real-life situations when traveling to a foreign country.

“You do in class what you cannot do by yourself. When you put in the effort, that is when you really begin to understand things and allows you to speak a wider majority of (the language), beyond just basic grammar structure,” Russo said. “When a student is an active participant in class, it is more effective in the language context because it’s similar to what you would be doing in a real-life situation when you’re in the middle of the street, or you’re in a new city. You’re not going to be thinking about grammar, you’ll just be reacting to different situations. You need to find your own strategies and make people understand you, so this is why we discuss in class.”

Nonetheless, this form of active learning still comes with some pushback. LSA sophomore Jillian Rice feels as if the class has begun to feel like a lecture. Rice said she expects the same type of lesson every day; though it is delivered differently than the conventional lesson, it has none of its own variety.

“I do not find the active learning model effective at all,” said Rice. “In class, we do not address what we are supposed to be learning at home. This causes confusion while doing the homework because we must learn all of the topics strictly from the textbook. In my opinion, it is much easier and clearer to learn from a teacher and in-person. I would benefit much more from a mixed classroom model. I believe that the point of homework should be to practice and reiterate what was learned in class, rather than the other way around. There is almost no incentive to come to class because all of the class time is spent talking to other classmates about things that most likely will not be covered on exams or anything else that determines our grade in the class.”

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