More than “It’s good for you” – Connecting Active Learning to What Students Value

18 Nov

Connect active learning methods with what students value

Active learning approaches have been shown to be effective in many studies; however, students are sometimes resistant to these approaches.  One approach used by many instructors is to inform students that they will learn better using active learning approaches and perhaps even backing this up with evidence from the pedagogical literature. However, this approach alone may not be enough. 

As Gary Smith argues, this is the equivalent to telling someone to eat their vegetables: Simply informing someone that something is “good for you” may not be enough to truly overcome resistance.  Smith – an Earth and Planetary Sciences professor at the University of New Mexico, advocates for clearly linking active learning methods to what students value as learners – and as people building live and work beyond our classrooms. 

In his 2013 Professional and Organizational Development conference presentation  Smith offers three practical, learner-aware approaches for overcoming student resistance that we can begin using on the first day of class.

Tie active learning to what students value in their college education

On the first day of class open a discussion with the following question: “Thinking of what you want to get out of your college education and this course, which of the following is most important to you?

  1. Acquiring factual knowledge
  2. Learning how to use knowledge in new situations
  3. Developing skills to continue learning after college.”

Smith assures us that in the many times he has asked this question of his students, the majority usually choose 2 or 3.  After assuring students that all three goals are important he asks them to select the goal(s) they think they would most likely achieve outside of class reading and studying on their own, and the goal(s) they think would be best achieved in class working with their classmates and instructor.  Smith assures us that most students will choose goal 1 for outside of class and goals 2 and 3 during class time.  He then follows this up with a discussion of the best ways to achieve goals 2 and 3 and the active learning approaches he will use during the semester to help them do that.  Smith asserts that this method allows students to link their personal goals for the class with the learning methods he will employ.

Tie active learning to what employers value

On the first day of class ask a question like this: “How important is it, to you, to develop skills in your coursework that will help you land a job when you graduate?”   Smith explains that this is an important goal for many students.  He then shares data with the students from a survey of hiring companies that asked what are the most desired characteristics among recent college graduates?

He then reveals the top 5 from the study (parentheses indicate the percentage of employers who chose this response)

  1. Leadership (81%)
  2. Problem-solving skills (75%)
  3. Written communication skills (75%)
  4. Ability to work in a team (74%)
  5. Analytical/quantitative skills (73%)

Smith connects leadership skills to effective team work and explains that this exercise helps achieve student buy-in for courses with significant writing and team work.  In this example, as in the previous example, this exercise connects what students value to the approaches used in the course.

Note that this approach may not be appropriate for classes where most students are planning on going to graduate or professional school.

Compare outside expertise to learning in class

A third approach that Smith recommends is to begin a discussion with a reflective question like this: “Think of something you consider yourself to be very good at, other than being a student of a school subject  (athletics, artistic ability, musical instrument talent, creative writing etc.). Now think about the process you went through to develop that expertise.”

When students are allowed time to discuss this in groups, they typically come up with the following categories:

  • hard work
  • lots of practice
  • getting feedback and instruction from others
  • learning from mistakes

After reminding students that learning in classes uses the same biological processes as the learning they described, he segues into a discussion of how the attributes they identified will help them learn in his class.  With this exercise, he again connects what students value with the learning approaches he will use in the class.

These learner-centered approaches to overcoming student resistance to active learning may be useful in classes that you teach that employ these methods. You may want to consider using one, two, or all three of these exercises on the first day of class to help tie your course approaches to what students value.

Resources – 3 short readings:

  • Top 10 Reasons Students Dislike Working in Small Groups – Taylor
  • Selling Active Learning to Faculty Requires a Student Purchase Too – Smith
  • First-Day Questions for the Learner-Centered Classroom – Smith

Resources – employers’ views:

  • Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn, a survey of employers conducted for AAC&U by Hart Research Associates and published in 2010.
  • NACE: Job Outlook 2013.
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