Learning About “Active Learning”

Last week I sat through a short workshop on active learning led by Dr. Judy Mitrani-Reiser in the Civil Engineering department. I’m just finishing up teaching an intersession course for the second time in grad school. It was certainly exciting and challenging to put together a whole class — mine was about imaging in astronomy, an overview of instrumentation fundamentals and challenges. But I still struggled to make the content exciting and engaging, especially in full 2 hour 15 minute blocks. After sitting through the active learning workshop, I can already start to imagine how to fit some of these exercises into my course. So I though I would share some of the main things I learned.

Active learning definition: “…anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes.”

Different students learn differently along a spectrum of styles. A few of the styles we discussed were:

Sensing vs. intuition (like the Meyers Briggs test I took in college– I’m intuition by the way): sensing learners tend to be detail oriented, while intuition-inclined are interested in big picture ideas and theories. Apparently most undergrads fall under the sensing category and most professors tend to fall in the intuition category. I guess that makes it important that professors are aware of the difference in learning styles

Visual vs. verbal: This one is probably dealt with pretty well in general for the sciences because we are often presenting via powerpoint and many of us work on data visualization. Providing both visual and verbal cues will help both kinds of learners.

Active vs. reflective: One way to tailor to both these kinds of learners is to provide preparation opportunities for the reflective learners. We were advised not to put students “on the spot” in class because that can be pretty uncomfortable, but instead allow them to open up. There is more than one way to participate.

Sequential vs. global: Judy suggested we make sure to connect lessons to global concepts so that everyone is on board. She shared that she gives weekly planned quizzes to make sure everyone is grasping the material and takes her students on field trips to see the concepts in action (though this particular direction may not work in all courses).

Here’s a list of active learning exercises we discussed that can enhance a classroom:

Team Exercises: In teams, recall material, answer or generate a question, start a problem set, explain a concept, brainstorm a list, figure out why a result is wrong.

Minute Paper: Ask the student to take a minute to discuss the day’s lesson in groups of 2-3 and summarize what they thought worked and didn’t work. This also includes an opportunity to submit “mud cards–” basically anonymous submissions of topics they found confusing.

Guided Peer Questioning: Get in groups of 3-4 to answer questions.

Cooperative Note Taking: One person takes notes in a discuss, then the other augments and corrects the notes (and students should switch roles).

Handouts: There is some information that is necessary for the students to have but my not be necessary (or that interesting) to cover in class. This can include important definitions that supplement the concepts. These can easily be passed out as handouts. For my course this could have easily been done with the trigonometric identities that we used often, and the various Fourier transform theorems we covered.

Pair-Coding: This one is pretty specific to courses that can or need to include an element of programming. If done correctly, this could be an especially useful practice if there is a range of familiarity with programming. In this case you can have specific roles, one person writes and the other watches and makes suggestions, then they switch. I’ve found this to be pretty successful with my colleagues, so why not the students?

Unfortunately, my course is over so I can’t implement these ideas this year. But there’s a good chance I’ll be teaching again in the future so I want to keep these ideas in mind!


Here is what I plan to do going forward:

One of the major challenges I had in this course was that my students had a range of background and familiarity in the course material. Physics and math majors had seen Fourier transforms before, but more others had not. Even though all the students had taken calculus, some were not very comfortable working with complex numbers. If I’m to teach a similar class I can arrange pairings between students who are more comfortable with course material and those who are less familiar.

For example, several but not all of my students use Python. In the future I can write up Python programs to demonstrate important concepts. I can ask the Python users to bring their laptops and pair up with students to execute these programs and discuss.

I asked a lot of questions in my course, and I really liked the idea of having students pair or group up to discuss those questions before responding. This gives everybody a little more time to think of their responses and hear other perspectives before speaking up. We also worked through a few problems, I could definitely have students group up to work on wither class problems or start the homework problems.

More tangibly, I’m going to rewrite all my notes and mark down where I think active learning exercises can be wrapped into the lesson.


Maybe the most important idea I took away from this was that the exercises we discussed are part of a toolbox. Try them out and see what works, more experience will improve the implementation.

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