Active Learning in the Classroom Part II: Pen and Paper

Active learning is a huge cornerstone of WAC philosophy, and is generally defined as: “any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing. While this definition could include traditional activities such as homework, in practice active learning refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom.” (Prince 2004) [1]

According to neuroscience research, the typical human brain can only maintain focus for approximately 15-20minutes at a time, so when we consider that our students are with us for roughly three times that per lesson, we cannot be too surprised when they become restless or disengage from the task at hand. Active learning activities therefore provide helpful and necessary shifts in the learning environment that immediately allow us to reset the focus and re-engage in materials.

What we are being asked to consider when we think about the role of active learning in our classroom is how our chosen teaching methods are directly influencing our students’ abilities to learn, and how that might look for each individual walking into our classroom. Are we satisfied with the way that students are learning in our classrooms? Some students are aural learners while others may be visual or tactile learners, so involving students in the process of learning with different types of activities, engages different parts of the brain and allows learning on multiple levels.

In a previous blog post Technology as Friend not Foe! I already discussed some of the ways we as instructors can introduce active learning strategies into our lessons to better engage our students in course material. This previous post focused on the beneficial role of technology in active learning, especially as something that oftentimes our students feel more comfortable using than we do. Online platforms such as discussion boards, forums, blogs, or social media sites such as Twitter, also extend conversations beyond class time so students may continue at home, and reach a wider social context than just the classroom that enables deeper analysis and learning.

Instead this time, I would like to focus on some of the ways we can introduce active learning strategies using the basic components of any classroom: pen and paper. One of the mantras of Writing Across the Curriculum is our belief that writing, particularly low-stakes writing, is a pathway to developing critical thought. This is because through the act of writing we engage with ideas and concepts by putting them into our own words and working through them in a way that forces us to take ownership of them, meaning we can go on to deploy these concepts in a variety of settings. Pen and paper are the easiest and most readily available tools; plus spontaneous writing exercises can happen at literally the drop of a hat in most classrooms.

It can be a good practice to get your students in the habit of arriving to class and sitting down to write a 5-minute journal entry or response to something either in the previous class or that they studied for homework. Immediately this gets them in the appropriate frame of mind to engage with your material, as well as forcing them into the role of having to decide on some level how they position themselves in relation to the information being received. Sometimes these brief responses can also form the beginnings of great research topics or ideas for larger, assessed work. Keeping tasks like this low-stakes means they don’t add to your workload as an instructor, but as a mandatory part of the lesson, students still tend to take them seriously. These informal journal entries can also happen at the end of class as a way to conclude, though I have found them most successful when put at the beginning, when they can then be used as an ice-breaker to initiate class discussion.

Brainstorming is another very simple exercise that promotes a high level of engagement with students almost immediately. John Bean suggests creating question-generating exercises that can lead to a more in-depth discussion as a class, for example: “Carefully observe this [poem, graph, statistical table, painting, advertisement]. What aspects of it puzzle you or intrigue you? As a group, pose three good questions that emerge from your observation of the item.” (Bean 2011) This strategy can be particularly effective if you feel you have some students that struggle to come up with original ideas on their own and who could benefit from a group-writing exercise.

In fact, any group work exercise can incorporate a writing component, so that again students must directly engage in the materials they are working with in order to reword concepts and ideas to present to the class. Debate scenarios can be an excellent way of promoting this skill of organizing and evaluating information and presenting it in a convincing argument. Asking students to each write up their proposed points and counter-arguments beforehand can also help them to synthesize and internalize information and give them study materials that they may refer to later on.

Peer-review is another in-class exercise that provides a context for active learning through putting pen to paper. Ideally peer-review would happen later in the semester when students have grown more familiar with one another, and when there is a larger writing project in mind that they are working towards, for example the Final Research Paper. One topic of focus could be the use of supporting evidence (tracking where it is / isn’t used, and suggesting improvements), and you divide the class into groups of 4-5 to take it in turns reading each person’s draft then giving collective written feedback. In this scenario the original writer is able to receive responses from their peers, as well as contribute to feedback on other’s work, allowing for both a verbal and written exchange of ideas and support that is invaluable for students to evolve and progress.

The link between active-learning and note-taking, or putting pen to paper, is just as important as its link to technology, and both remain crucial in the experiences of our students as they navigate the pressures of managing several course-loads of material. Thus as instructors, if we can vary our approach in what we ask from our students, we give them the best possible chance at success.

[1] Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-31.