Promoting and Supporting Active Learning Strategies in the Face of Changes and Challenges: What, Why and How?
Reflections on Practice
LAM Siew Hong, CAI Hongxia, and XU Weiting
Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore (NUS)
Name: Assoc Prof LAM Siew Hong
Address: Department of Biological Sciences, 14 Science Drive 4, Singapore 117543
Lam S. H., Cai H., & Xu W. (2022). Promoting and supporting active learning strategies in the face of changes and challenges: What, why and how? Asian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(1). 69-79.
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Active learning strategies are effective in engaging and promoting learning as a process of knowledge construction. Building on constructivism frameworks, active learning is not new; however, it has garnered increasing interest in the academic communities. A wealth of empirical evidence and resources that demonstrate why and how it works have been generated. These resources provide sound and useful pedagogic strategies in the face of challenges arising from the changes in teaching and learning needs. Due to the ramifications of COVID-19 and several education initiatives, the NUS Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) is promoting and supporting active learning strategies that are amenable to technology-enhanced learning (TEL) in order to maintain, or even enhance, the quality of learning experiences, and to meet the learning needs of an increasingly diverse student population. To understand the level of awareness and practices of active learning instructional methods in the Department, a survey was conducted among departmental teaching staff. We examined and reflected upon the extent of the level of awareness and practices of active learning instructional methods as well as the challenges and concerns in employing them. We proposed possible strategies to support and promote active learning in the Department in the face of impending changes and challenges in the coming years.
Keywords: Active learning strategies, instructional methods, learning activities
What is active learning?
Active learning is based on the constructivist learning theory which maintains that learning is a process of ‘making meaning’, where the learner constructs knowledge and builds understanding by integrating new information and experiences into existing mental frameworks, or by modifying the existing mental frameworks to accommodate conflicting knowledge (Jonassen, 1991). Constructivist theory asserts that learning is therefore an active process of knowledge construction rather than passive knowledge acquisition, as the learner has to (re-)interpret and integrate information and experiences in the mind, and failing to do so may imply that one has not learned despite having acquired the information or been exposed to the experiences (Alanazi, 2016). Social constructivism further posits that learning occurs mainly through social interaction in a cultural context, and that learners can develop beyond their current ability with the help of scaffolded learning through collaborative efforts between a teacher and peers (Vygotsky, 1978). Social cognitive theory emphasises that social learning involves the dynamic and reciprocal interactions between the learner, environment, and behaviour (Bandura, 1986). Taken together, these constructivist values and theories form the basis for active learning strategies and environments (Grabinger & Dunlap, 1995).
While active learning occurs in the learner/student’s mind, active learning instructional methods are ‘student centred’ learning activities designed and executed by an instructor to engage students in the learning process (Michael, 2006). These instructional methods, building on the constructivist framework, require students to perform learning activities that make them actively think about what they are learning as opposed to passively receiving information (Prince, 2004). They induce students’ cognitive engagement where students put in effort to build understanding by making connections between the information they receive, hence constructing knowledge and even acquiring skills above and beyond listening to a lecture or note-taking (Handelsman et al., 2007). Extending from social constructivism and social cognitive theory, active learning activities often involve peer interaction or group work and they require, as well as promote, higher-order thinking as students interact with the learning materials within the social environment (Freeman et al., 2014). They can occur inside and outside of classroom as part of a module/course that is thoughtfully designed and guided by the instructor.
Does active learning work?
There are substantial published empirical studies on active learning. A focused literature search using certain keywords (such as Boolean logic “active learning” AND “education”), and some filters in three popular literature database for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines revealed a similar rising trend of publications related to active learning over the past decade (Table 1). Literature databases such as SpringerLink and Scopus revealed a three-fold increase in annual publications related to active learning in the context of education compared to ten years ago, while PubMed, a more specific database for health and life sciences literature, revealed over six-fold increase albeit with a smaller number of publications on record.
Number of publications related to active learning (from 2011 to 2020)
These findings suggest rising interest in active learning in the STEM academic communities, including those in health and life sciences, and there are vast resources of empirical studies for active learning. Moreover, there have been large-scale studies published in high-impact journals in STEM communities that demonstrate the effectiveness of active learning instructional methods (Theobald et al., 2020; Freeman et al., 2014; Ruiz-Primo et al., 2011; Haak et al., 2011). These studies, together with the critical reviews on active learning (Michael, 2006; Prince, 2004), provide ample empirical evidence on how and why active learning works.
Why active learning now?
The COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications have necessitated the shift from traditional learning (TL: physical, face-to-face) to technology-enhanced learning (TEL: fully online, hybrid or blended) that will remain for the foreseeable future. While this shift has created opportunities for educators to embrace TEL, it has also created challenges in adopting the technologies and in using them effectively for teaching and learning. Concerns arising from the notions that TEL is impersonal, less interactive, and less effective than TL have been raised (O’Neill & Sai, 2014; Gherhes et al., 2021). These concerns can be addressed by incorporating active learning activities that require greater interaction between the learner, their peers and instructor so that learning is made more interpersonal and collaborative. Moreover, active learning activities are amenable to technology and can be effectively executed through TEL in a blended or fully online learning environment (Shi et al., 2020). Therefore, active learning activities can help to maintain, or even enhance, the quality of learning experiences regardless whether it is TEL or TL.
The NUS Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) Teaching Committee is therefore proactively seeking to promote and support active learning instructional methods. The established theoretical foundation of active learning provides a sound basis to build on and the large number of empirical studies, especially in the STEM communities, offers a reservoir of resources for educators to draw from when using active learning as a pedagogic strategy to enhance the teaching and learning experience.
Survey and Reflections
An online exploratory survey was conducted and analysed by the co-chair of DBS Teaching Committee’s Co-chair, with the support of DBS full-time Teaching Assistants (FTTAs), to understand the awareness and practices of active learning methods amongst DBS academic staff, and the concerns or challenges they face. The survey also sought to understand the receptiveness of staff towards possible strategies to promote and support active learning by the Department and the University. The survey was conducted during the Departmental Retreat period using the Qualtrics platform through email invitation, and reminders sent to all departmental academic staff. A total of 33 respondents, including seven who provided their input anonymously. Among the 26 respondents who indicated their identities, seven were females and 19 were males, comprising of three professors, one professor in practice, 10 associate professors, four assistant professors, four senior lecturers, two lecturers, one instructor, and one FTTA.
Reflection on awareness and practices of active learning
The survey findings suggested a good awareness among respondents of active learning methods and a strong interest in incorporating active learning activities into teaching (Table 2). Although the survey may have attracted respondents who were more receptive to active learning methods, the findings represented about 50% of teaching staff of the Department (excluding adjunct staff).
Awareness of active learning methods and activities
Furthermore, 78% of the respondents employed active learning activities ‘frequently’ or ‘very frequently’ in their classes (Table 3). Simple active learning methods such as clarification pauses to encourage thinking and questioning during lectures, a moderately complex activity such as group/online discussion to encourage peer learning, and more complex learning activities such as case studies and problem-based learning that foster greater higher-order and interdisciplinary thinking skills, were among the top active learning activities employed by over 60% of the respondents. On the lower end, writing activities during class (e.g. a minute paper where students have to list down major points or address questions related to a topic within a short duration), role-playing and others (such as debate, game-style quizzes, and critical reflection) were employed by less than 30% of the respondents.
Employment of active learning methods/activities
Reflection on challenges, experiences and needs related to active learning methods
About 70% of the respondents found it ‘slightly difficult’ to ‘difficult’ when employing active learning methods in their modules (Table 4). Competing limited time between content delivery and learning activity during class, lack of resources for active learning, classroom management, and online limitations due to remote teaching, were among the top difficulties and concerns faced by at least 30% of respondents. On the lower end, low student participation, difficulty in assessing effectiveness, not knowing what works, lack of experience, and others (e.g. taking too much of students’ time outside classroom, unpredictable class size, lack of support), were concerns and challenges faced by less than 30% of the respondents.
Difficulties, constraints, and concerns related to active learning activities
Several respondents provided text input that offered some insights that can be broadly categorised into ‘experiences’ and ‘needs’ with regards to active learning (Table 5). Those who shared their experiences revealed that they were employing different active learning methods for different purposes, levels, and class sizes with some success or mixed outcomes. Several ‘needs’ were also indicated, such as logistics for effective execution of active learning (small class sizes and manpower), support for staff to develop active learning methods through workshops, clinics, or videos, and educating students on active learning, including soliciting student feedback on their active learning experience.
Reflections on active learning (minor editing was applied for clarity and conciseness)
Reflections on promoting and supporting active learning
To meet some of the needs and address some of the challenges faced by respondents in order to promote and support active learning, multi-pronged strategies that could be undertaken by the Department and the University were proposed to the respondents. Over 60% of the respondents considered organising workshops on active learning methods for staff and students separately, and sharing information resources on active learning deemed to be ‘effective’ or the ‘most effective’ departmental approaches (Table 6). All the five proposed strategies that can be undertaken by the University, from changing or providing focus on active learning in student feedback, teaching excellence awards, peer review, annual review of teaching performance, to new module proposals, were rated as ‘effective’ or the ‘most effective’ by over 60% of the respondents. Taken together, the perception is that while the Department can provide support for active learning, the University can formulate policies and implement practices that can be more effective in promoting active learning.
Strategies that can be undertaken by the Department or University to promote and support active learning
A case to support active learning for DBS
With the University’s launch of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), DBS faculty colleagues are teaching students from diverse science and non-science academic backgrounds with emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. Moreover, the Department also launched three new Master of Science (MSc) by coursework programmes that will further diversify learning needs arising from graduate students and adult learners in continuous education training. Due to the above developments within the Department and University that are occurring within the same time and space, these resulting challenges are felt more acutely and would need to be addressed in the coming years. Active learning activities have been shown to be more inclusive in meeting the learning needs of students from diverse backgrounds (Theobald et al., 2020; Haak et al., 2011). Moreover, active learning strategies can help achieve practice-based or ability-based educational outcomes and are hence suited for continuous education training (Gleason et al., 2011). By employing active learning strategies that utilise dynamic, interdisciplinary, and generative learning activities where students collaborate and become investigators, problem solvers, seekers, or constructors of knowledge (Grabinger & Dunlap, 1995), it can promote higher-order and interdisciplinary thinking skills, nurture lifelong learners, and prepare students for the complex workforce, thus meeting the education aspirations of the programmes and the university.
Based on the survey findings, the Department can leverage on the strong awareness and interest of its academic staff on active learning (Table 2) to meet the diverse learning needs arising from the new CHS curriculum and the MSc programmes. The Department can create a conducive environment to further promote and support active learning by organising periodic active learning workshops and discussion forums (Table 6). As many of the staff employ various active learning methods (Table 3), they can be workshop facilitators and presenters where they can share their needs-based experiences of adopting and applying active learning strategies in their modules (Table 5). They can also help address difficulties and concerns faced by colleagues during the workshop or through a discussion forum (Table 4). Moreover, the Department can help create e-resources for active learning by compiling contributions from colleagues and other relevant sources. The Department can also source for additional information from the large reservoir of literature (Table 1) to provide ideas for active learning practices and help address some of the challenges faced by colleagues. If there are sufficient levels of interest and commitments, an action group focusing specific active learning methods and recognition awards for excellent effort in this area can be initiated by colleagues and supported by the Department.
Last but not least, active learning awareness must also be created among students (Table 5) because active learning occurs in their minds. The Department can organise learning workshops for students to inform them of the various active learning strategies they can adopt (Table 6). The Department can develop e-resources such as an e-handbook comprising descriptions of modules that highlight the various active learning strategies employed in each module; this is so that students can be more aware and better prepared to participate in these active learning activities carried out by the instructors. It is hoped that as the teacher actively teaches, so will the students actively learn, and active learning practices will become a part of the Department’s educational culture as we face changes and traverse the challenges of teaching and learning in the coming years.
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About the Corresponding Author
LAM Siew Hong is an Associate Professor and teaches at the Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, NUS. He is also the Co-chair of the Department’s Teaching Committee. His research interests encompass transcriptome, molecular and functional characterisation of adaptive response in organ-tissues of fish and other organisms under specific environmental stressors. He is interested in creating rich environments for active learning and enhancing transferable skills for future-ready graduates.
Siew Hong can be reached at email@example.com.