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Active Learning: How to Engage Students In Your Course

Tracy Zanolini, a Cengage Faculty Partner, is a Mathematics Instructor at Rowan Cabarrus Community College. This article discusses Active Learning in her courses, and offers tips to help you incorporate Active Learning strategies into your own.

Our pediatrician advised us to think about our boys’ diet over a week, rather than focusing on one meal. In the same way, active learning is about the combination of strategies I can use to engage students, and get them involved in their learning throughout the semester. My goal is to change students’ mindsets away from trying to finish the course and towards learning the content. Students will be more engaged in class if I can make that shift.
My courses are designed to foster a culture that encourages learning and encourages collaboration. I am open and honest about the ways I structure my classes and the reasons behind them.

Student Mindset Is Key
Students must be encouraged to learn and actively engage in learning. It takes active engagement to learn STEM content. You must think about how to get your students to do this. This gives me the opportunity to continue practicing previous content because some students may take longer to learn it. I don’t just give something and then move on. Students know that it’s okay to take a little extra practice with the material.
I give them extra practice so they can feel proud of their progress from beginning to end.
These are some tips that you can use to improve your course.

Use “quick questions” at the start of every class
In-person students receive “quick quizzes” at each class meeting. These short quizzes (three questions) will cover the entire semester’s content. We discuss how it is important to review the content regularly as a class. I can answer any questions that remain. It helps me to make sure students retain what they have learned throughout the semester.
When students are getting ready for these quizzes to be submitted, I always have a tip in my back pocket: “You can work with a partner for two minutes.”
These two minutes of deep conversation (which I often extend due to the great interactions going on), are truly amazing. Even for those who shy away, it is amazing to see how many people can have deep conversations. I see my students become more comfortable participating in the group work we do at the end each class meeting when I use this strategy.

You can add a few questions to each homework assignment that covers prior content
I also add three to 4 problems at the end each homework assignment that covers content from earlier in semesters. We discuss the fact that even though a student may have struggled with a particular problem at the beginning, we don’t just stop there. Because I believe they can master even the most complex concepts if they have enough practice and time, I give them the opportunity to practice the content.

Offer additional practice opportunities in class
STEM-focused courses have active learning, which is different because students won’t be able “get by” by just watching their instructor solve problems.
Students must ultimately solve the problems themselves so they can practice thinking about where to start and what steps to take to get there.
A few years back, I had an “aha!” moment as I was trying to update my lecture notes. My students would not learn the content better if they watched me do another example. I drastically reduced the lecture portion of my classes and added a group work section to each class. This allows my students to work together to solve additional problems.

To develop a deeper understanding, use group work
I realized that students would not be able to solve these additional problems by themselves. The extra practice problems I give my students at the end of class are given to them as group work. I believe that everyone benefits from working in groups, regardless of their level of knowledge. It’s fun to see the differences between groups. Labs are also implemented throughout the semester, where students can use technology and other resources in order to see the content in a new way.

Use short videos for online courses
I won’t lie, but I will tell the truth.