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Active learning at CMU

Lesson plan is passive no more

Active learning approaches and technology continue to gain ground at CMU

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

Michael Garver talks with a team of his Marketing 450 students during an active learning exercise.

Michael Garver talks with a team of his Marketing 450 students during an active learning exercise.

Central Michigan University Professor Michael Garver's 40 or so marketing research students ponder a question projected onscreen at the front of Grawn Hall 201. It's a tough one. With a tap on a handheld electronic device, each silently logs an answer.

Then Garver calls out "Team up!" and the room bursts into action. Students huddle in groups of four to consider the question together. Conversation buzzes across the tables as Garver plays the "Guardians of the Galaxy" soundtrack over the speakers. A few minutes later, he fades out the music, and each student answers again — this time with the benefit of combined wisdom.

Garver reveals the results with a flourish: Initially, 44 percent got it right. After discussion, 80 percent.

"We taught each other," he tells the class.


This is one face of active learning, a movement gaining fans among faculty and students as it spreads through CMU. In active learning, students lead and instructors support — planning, guiding, reinforcing.

In some classes, there might be no lecture at all. In Garver's Marketing 450 course in the College of Business Administration, students watch video lessons on their own outside of class and apply their knowledge when they get together — an approach sometimes called a flipped classroom.

Garver said it drives learning to have the students collaborate within their small groups while competing against other groups.

"We all bounce our ideas off each other rather than just listening and absorbing," said senior Matt Smith, of Port Huron, Michigan. One of his teammates says the sharing makes a difference.

"Sometimes you want to go with your gut on an answer," said senior Jordan Hernandez, of Canton, Michigan, "but then your teammates will convince you of something else."

Students high-five during a quiz in the College of Medicine’s active learning classroom.

Students high-five during a quiz in the College of Medicine’s active learning classroom.

Letting go of the lecture

No one wants to be drenched by a fire hose.

But if you ask Brian Roberts, coordinator of instructional technology in CMU's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, that's how many classrooms are conducted.

"The instructor's class-long lecture is the blast of water, oversaturating passive students who then do their best to wring their brains out into homework and exams."

Roberts continues, "People tend to teach the way that they were taught, and many of today's faculty were lectured to."

In active learning, Roberts explained, students engage with each other, are guided by formative assessment, and do hands-on projects to understand and interpret the material instead of just turning all eyes to the lectern. When lecture is used, it is in small and strategic doses.

"The more involved you are with your learning, the more you will get out of it." — Kirsten Weber

It may sound touchy-feely, but it's really common sense: Think about your workplace, where you collaborate with colleagues all day long.

"Employers tell us they want students who can work in groups," said Anja Mueller, professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department. She chairs the College of Science and Engineering's active learning committee.

Mueller has used active learning for three years now, after two years of planning the transition. She said she'll never go back.

"Active learning teaches you how to problem-solve," Mueller said.

Her students hone their study skills and read in-depth outside of class, preparing ahead of time to team up on worksheets in class. Even without lectures, Mueller makes sure they come away with the knowledge they need.

"There's plenty that I do; they just don't see it," she said.

Anja Mueller’s students work in groups in the Dow Science Complex.

Anja Mueller’s students work in groups in the Dow Science Complex.

High-powered classrooms

The setting can play a role, too. Room 135 of the Dow Science Complex, where Mueller teaches, is one of seven CMU active learning classrooms throughout campus outfitted with small-group seating and big-time technology.

Mueller's students use the Top Hat electronic response system to take quizzes. "I also often show different things on the two sets of screens, such as the worksheet they are doing on one and additional information on the other," Mueller said.

"The students are talking to each other. They're engaged." — Xantha Karp

On a recent day in the similarly equipped Room 1015 of the Biosciences Building, Professor Xantha Karp watched over her 60-some Biology 112 students seated in groups of five and six around U-shaped tables facing large flat-screen monitors.

Each table researched a different cell structure online and created a digital poster. By circling the room to check out each group's screen, everyone learned about all of the cell structures. If anyone's poster missed the mark, Karp and her teaching assistant would follow up with the correct information.

"The students are talking to each other. They're engaged," Karp said. "I really enjoy being able to walk around and talk to students one-on-one instead of just being at the front of the room."

Xantha Karp

Xantha Karp makes her rounds as students collaborate in the Biosciences Building’s active learning classroom.

Something for every discipline

A new biology curriculum launched last year incorporates active learning into all of the department's foundational courses, but active learning is hardly limited to sciences alone.

Kirsten Weber, associate professor of communication, uses active learning to teach writing in the College of Communication and Fine Arts.

 "I can tell the students in my classes are stronger writers," she said. "They are more engaged with the material, and they are more invested in the course."

Weber said she's always been drawn to active learning strategies, and last year she took the plunge.

"I was teaching the same writing-intensive course in the fall and spring, and I was intent on making the course more active," she said. "For me, lecturing about writing wasn't effective, so I had to figure out a different way to teach."

Weber found active learning more engaging for herself and her students.

"I would get a lot of immediate feedback from the students about how much they liked the activities and how much more they understood from getting involved in their learning that way," she said. 

She has a message for students who might be new to an active learning environment.

"I would say if you have a professor using active learning strategies, give that person the benefit of the doubt and get involved. The more involved you are with your learning, the more you will get out of it."

Mark Francek

Mark Francek gets his geography students out of their chairs for an active lesson.

'Adapt to the environment'

Weber's classrooms don't feature active learning seating or technology, but she makes it work anyway.

"Active learning is really about getting students engaged in the learning process, as opposed to transferring information to students like in a traditional lecture," she said. "I think there are ways to make active learning work in any space."

Roberts agrees: "You adapt to the environment you're in, and you figure out how to make it work."

He worked with an instructor concerned that he couldn't move among the students in his large lecture hall — until Roberts pointed out he could tape off every third or fourth row to keep it open as a pathway for himself.

Steven Gorsich

Steven Gorsich shares a moment with his biology students.

'A radical change'

Going all-in on active learning can be a big challenge. Some instructors spend a year or more making the transition, and some students struggle at first with the unfamiliar approach.

"Everybody's used to lectures," Mueller said. "It's the comfortable way to do it, so active learning is the unknown — a radical change.

"Knowing by heart is not going to get you there."

Most active learning instructors talk with their students up front about how learning works. Some, including Karp and Mueller, have their small groups create and sign contracts to make sure everyone contributes and is treated with respect.

Assigning points and credit for group work can be a challenge, too. Mueller says resistance by students can be high at first but eases over time.

Going all-in is not the only option. Mueller said in her department, instructors' use of active learning "ranges from 10 minutes here and there a few times a month to 100 percent."

For any instructor, Roberts said, one thing is always an option: "Try something new next week."

Students use an electronic response system to log answers in Xantha Karp’s classroom.

Students use an electronic response system to log answers in Xantha Karp’s classroom.

Learn about learning

Instructors and others ready to learn more about active learning can check out the following resources and/or contact the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning staff to schedule a consultation.

• Active learning strategies and resources

• Active Learning Toolkit Online

Upcoming workshops and events

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