In order to stay relevant in today’s college classrooms within our fast-paced and ever-evolving world, professors must be ready to utilize instructional tools of all kinds to actively engage students in authentic learning experiences that take them beyond the classroom. Professors are positioned and ready to best provide opportunities for students to explore real-world challenges and discover solutions to those challenges within their disciplines and professions.
One of the first calls for professors to actively involve their students in learning as a means of achieving higher order skills came from Benjamin Bloom and his widely used Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). More recently, as higher education institutions have sharpened their focus on student success, the term “high-impact practices” has been used to describe strategies that foster supportive peer and mentor relationships, make use of experiential learning opportunities, and ultimately increase students’ likelihood of successfully completing their higher education goals (AAC&U).
As students complete their undergraduate programs and prepare for the professional world, they are expected to bring critical thinking and problem-solving skills with them to the workplace and their communities. Professors can best support them with engaged pedagogies designed to foster student leadership in the classroom and increase students’ ownership of their own learning. Whether you are considering redesigning an entire course, enhancing current in-class activities, or incorporating a more interactive approach to what you are already doing, active learning strategies offer a variety of options that are relevant across all levels and disciplines. Experiential learning, service-learning, and discussion-based interactive instruction are three methods that are grounded in student experiences which encourage them to become further engaged within their discipline while increasing their focus on the application of knowledge over recalling information.
Experiential learning describes a set of learning strategies in which students are asked to take part in specific experiences and then reflect on those experiences—colloquially, we might refer to experiential learning as “learning by doing.” Experiential learning is much more than simply having an experience; however, students must think critically about their experiences through the reflection process and then apply their reflective insights to adjust their future behavior in order to transform an experience into an experiential learning. David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle is often used as the basis for designing experiential learning projects, and the Experiential Learning Institute refers to these steps as (1) experiencing, (2) reflecting, (3) thinking, and (4) acting. Experiential learning opportunities can be built into the curriculum as in-class or out-of-class experiences, whether asking students to take part in a simulation, role playing exercise, or field experience.
Service-learning or community-engaged learning is one type of experiential learning that applies students’ skills and knowledge from a particular discipline to a community issue. With its focus on connecting the campus and discipline to the broader community, service-learning is very appealing to a generation of students who are interested in contributing to meaningful change in their communities and the world. While complex social problems cannot be solved in the space of a semester, a service-learning project can raise students’ awareness and understanding of social issues, foster lasting relationships with classmates and community members, and bring students into the network of individuals and agencies mobilized around a particular cause. Service-learning projects can involve students in direct service in the community, either in-person or virtually, or, just as often, they engage students in some behind-the-scenes research, development of resources or deliverables, or advocacy around a particular issue. Resources for getting started with service-learning are available from Campus Compact and the National Youth Leadership Council.
In-class discussion is one option for reflection on service-learning and other experiential learning opportunities, but discussion-based interactions can accomplish many additional goals beyond reflecting on experiences, and discussion can be an active learning strategy in itself. The key to empowering students to take part in active and engaging discussions is establishing a classroom community in which students trust that their contributions are valued and structuring discussion activities to call students into the conversation in a variety of ways. Here are a few discussion strategies that have been successful in our college classrooms. Spencer Kagan (2009) is well known in the field of education for developing classroom management strategies such as Think, Pair, Share and Hand up, Stand up, Pair up, which can be easily applied in the college classroom, along with other active learning strategies for discussion.
This interactive learning method involves half of the students in your class sitting in a circle around the second half of your class seated in the very center of that circle. The inner circle of students engage in a performance, give a speech or presentation, perform an experiment, or they may simply share their experiences or responses to a specific prompt. They are like “fish in a fishbowl” because they can be seen from all angles. After their presentation or performance, the class discusses what they saw and provides feedback on the experience, or may ask follow-up questions of the students in the center; then, the inner and outer groups switch roles and the process may be repeated. This strategy ensures that all students are given the floor for a certain amount of time, and helps students sharpen their active listening skills.
In a gallery walk, the instructor positions items, visuals, or prompts around the classroom. Students work in small cooperative groups walking through the room to read, analyze, answer questions, and gather information from each item in the “gallery” which is very similar to an art gallery. Once the groups have gone through all items on their gallery walk, the teacher refocuses the class back together for a debrief and invites students to discuss what they gained from the experience. This method allows students to share their thoughts in small groups prior to speaking in front of the entire class, and energizes students by giving them the opportunity to move around the classroom.
Think, Pair, Share
Students are assigned a partner they “pair” with and the instructor poses a question or topic for discussion. The pair must first “think” about what they already know about the topic and then take turns discussing and sharing their ideas and perspectives on that particular topic with their partner. This allows students to “share” their ideas with just one other person in class prior to or in place of speaking in front of the entire class, and ensure that all students have an opportunity to share and to listen to other students’ ideas.
Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up
In this exercise, students are all asked to hold one hand up and walk around the room. On the professor’s signal, the students stop walking and hold onto another student’s hand in the classroom, or high five one another. The professor then instructs the students to partner up with that person and discuss the prompt for a set amount of time. After the pair discusses their topic, the professor invites pairs to share with the whole class what was discussed. This exercise can be repeated for several rounds to allow students to discuss the same topic with multiple other students.
Adopting active learning strategies encourages professors to step away from the role of subject matter expert and instead serve as facilitators of student learning. While this shift in control can feel daunting for both the professor and student, these strategies create active learning spaces that allow students to take risks, encounter the unexpected, and ultimately grow in their knowledge of their discipline. Through active learning, students gain perspective, empathy, and understanding of others through critical conversions in a supportive space, while also learning to view their own experiences as an important source of lifelong learning for themselves and others.
Stefanie R. Sorbet is the program coordinator for the elementary K-6 program as well as an assistant professor in elementary education at the University of Central Arkansas. She began 23 years ago as an elementary classroom educator. She currently instructs preservice elementary teachers in positive classroom management courses. Sorbet earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in elementary education and her EdD in educational leadership from Southeastern Louisiana University.
Lesley Graybeal is the director of service-learning and volunteerism at the University of Central Arkansas. Graybeal earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and PhD in social foundations of education from the University of Georgia. Prior to her time at UCA, she taught first-year writing and American literature and coordinated the service-learning program at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
American Association of Colleges and Universities. (2022). Trending topic: High-impact practices. https://www.aacu.org/trending-topics/high-impact
Bloom, B.S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook: The cognitive domain. David McKay.
Campus Compact. (2022). Community-engaged learning and teaching knowledge hub. https://compact.org/resources/community-engaged-learning-and-teaching-knowledge-hub
Institute for Experiential Learning. (2021). What is experiential learning? https://experientiallearninginstitute.org/resources/what-is-experiential-learning/
Heer, R. (2015). A model of learning objectives based on a taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. https://www.celt.iastate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/RevisedBloomsHandout-1.pdf
Kagan, S. & Kagan, M. (2009). Kagan cooperative learning. Kagan Publishing.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice Hall.
National Youth Leadership Council. (n.d.). Service-learning. https://www.nylc.org/page/WhatisService-Learning