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11.1: What is the importance of keeping students engaged in learning?

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    By Carol Halligan


    How did you learn in school? If your learning experience was like mine, the teacher lectured and I took notes. I didn’t look at or study my notes until the night before my test. My goal was to memorize, not learn. What could have been done differently to make my learning experience more effective? Confucius said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” (Stalheim-Smith, 1998, p. 3). Emphasizing "I do and I understand," educational research writers Chickering and Gamson write, "Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves" (Chickering & Gameson, 1987, paragraph 14).

    What Chickering and Gamson are referring to is “active learning.” Active learning means “hands on” working on things, and “minds on” reflecting upon the work which engages the student in learning.

    As future teachers, we owe it to our students to go beyond traditional methods of teaching which is lecturing and taking notes to more active learning methods that help students become involved in their own education.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Bronze statue of Confucius (Public Domain, Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5" (1905), Abriß der Weltliteratur, Seite 23)


    Confucius said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

    To add more insight to Confucius' wisdom, Lynn Schultz, Old Dominion University Educational Instructor writes, "We learn...(taken from an old proverb) 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we both see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we experience personally, and 95% of what we teach to someone else" (Schultz, n.d.).

    Active Learning Strategies

    In this article, we are going to look at the benefits of moving teachers away from lecturing which is “teacher-centered instruction” to facilitating or coaching which is “student-centered learning” (All, n.d., table). Below are six strategies to aid in this process.

    Short Lecture, Class Exercise, and Review

    In traditional learning, teachers often lecture for long periods of time and students take notes. Research has shown that students will learn more when lectures are broken down into small segments, followed by a class exercise. Class exercises help you as the teacher to know if the student understands what you have just taught them, and also fosters questions. Following the class exercise, provide a summary of what was learned (Calegari & Moulthrop, n.d.). For example, if the subject you are teaching is math, provide math problems to test the student’s understanding. If the subject is history or literature, have the students write what they learned from your discussion (University, 2001). After the students have completed the class exercise, review their answers as a group to ensure their understanding of the lesson, followed by a summation of what they learned highlighting important ideas and concepts. This strategy of a short lecture, class exercise, and review is a more active way of learning than the traditional method of long lecturers and note taking.

    Peer Teaching

    To make learning even more active, research indicates peer teaching (students teaching students) is a very effective way to learn. Lynn Schultz, Old Dominion University Educational Instructor writes, "We learn...(taken from an old proverb)...95% of what we teach to someone else" (Schultz, n.d.). From my own teaching experience, I think that this statement is very true. It is human nature to want to be prepared when speaking in front of a group of people. You create a lesson plan that you feel comfortable with, and become an expert in the process. You dive into the content of the material preparing for any type of question that may come your way. Peer teaching not only teaches content material, but communication skills as well. Peer teaching doesn’t have to be teaching to an entire class, but can be applied to small groups, or groups that include only two students (University, 2001). Publications written at the Center for Teaching and Learning indicate “Students are more willing to share their views in small groups and often develop deeper insights about the material than they would be working alone” (University, 2001, paragraph 3). Peer teaching can be applied in many content areas. It can be used to teach a complex problem, or as simple as teaching student’s spelling words, vocabulary, or math facts allowing each student to be the teacher as well as the student.

    Cooperative Learning Groups, and Debate Teams

    Another active learning strategy is Cooperative Learning. Cooperative Learning means grouping students together to learn from one another to achieve an educational goal. Success which is reaching the educational goal is based on how well the members work together and help each other. Failure from one of the members will have a negative impact on the group's success (Chapter, 2004). A good example of Cooperative Learning is this Wikibooks project we are working on. Each student explores a topic that falls under the umbrella of Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment. The students are active in researching their topic, reflecting upon it, and writing about what they have learned. After the articles are written, peers review articles providing information on ways to improve an article’s content. After reviewing articles, the class as a whole will study all topics researched by the group. The entire Wikibooks project is a cooperative effort that engages the student in learning.

    In addition to Cooperative Learning groups, another effective way to learn is to group students into teams that take different positions on a topic and debate them. Again this style of learning is cooperative and engaging as members of a group explore a topic to debate. In addition, there is an element of stress involved in a debate competition that can only put some pressure on the group to fully understand what they are debating.

    Role Playing, Case Studies, and Simulations

    To add real life experiences to a student's learning, role playing, case studies, and simulations are effective strategies to use. For example, role playing allows the student to put themselves in the shoes of another person, teaching them empathy and understanding of people’s differences or situations. Role playing can also be used to teach a process where the student goes through steps to learn a concept (Active, 1993).

    Case studies also deal with real life. They are based on research of real life problems. Case studies examine a problem and leave out “analysis” and “conclusions” forcing the student to be the “decision maker” using his or her “analytical and problem solving skills” to come up with a solution to the problem (Active, 1993, page 2).

    Simulations are another way to imitate real life. They are very similar to case studies where they put the student in the decision maker role. The student learns to problem solve using a simplified version of the real world problems. These simulations are a great way to bridge in-class examples with real life (Florida, 2008). There are many software applications on the web today that can be downloaded to educate the student in real life events. In addition, you can take these simulation examples and apply it to role playing, or case study activities.


    Games, another active learning strategy, are always a fun way to engage a student in learning. You can find many game ideas on the web to incorporate in your curriculum. For example, play the baseball game by splitting the class into two teams. Ask batters a question, and if he or she gets the answer right advance a base, but if answered wrong it’s an out. Play the game as if you are playing baseball and have students mark outs and runs on the chalkboard (Harrison, n.d.). Another fun game is classroom Jeopardy which is a lot like the television version of Jeopardy. This a good review game where the teacher provides the answer to a question and the student must write down the question. For example, if the teacher was reviewing multiplication math facts, the techer might say 27 and students who wrote 3X9 would win points. The student with the most points at the end of the game would win a prize like being the first student in the lunch line or the first student out at the playground for recess (Whiteboard, 2002).

    Journals and Portfolios

    Other active learning strategies include journals and portfolios. Journals and portfolios aid the student in tracking their learning progress (Florida, 2008). Journals and portfolios can be a compilation of the student’s work over time, perhaps in nine-week increments, or for the entire school year. It is a great way for tracking what a student came to the class knowing, how they progressed in their learning, and a reflection on what they have learned.

    Traditional Learning versus Active Learning

    Based on research it appears that applying active learning methods can really engage a student in learning so that more knowledge is retained and understood. But, one major concern of active learning is that it may be too time intensive and because of this, SOL requirements that test a vast amount of knowledge might not be met. Is it possible to implement active learning strategies and cover all necessary SOL material? I suppose the best way to answer this question, is to look at research. At Newsome Park Elementary School in Newport News Virginia, the school changed from a traditional learning program to an active learning program and their SOL test scores rose. Based on the schools statistics, “...between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of fifth graders passing the Virginia Standards of Learning test increased from 35 percent to 65 percent in math, 52 percent to 79 percent in science, and 53 percent to 65 percent in English” after active learning practices were implemented (Curtis, 2001, paragraph 15). To view a multimedia video on the active learning successes that took place at Newsome Park Elementary School go to

    Another concern of active learning is that it appears ideal only in small classrooms of fewer than 20 students, but when you get into teaching larger classes of greater than 20 students it may be impractical to use active learning strategies. There may be too much noise and confusion in large classes using active learning strategies. The traditional method of teaching would provide order. According to educators from North Carolina State University, they disagree and feel "the larger the class, the more essential it is to use active learning" (Felder & Brent, 1999, paragraph 9). They suggest that large classes be divided into small groups of 2 or 3 students. After a specific amount time has lapsed, stop the group's activity, and direct a question to one member of the group. Asking questions directed to one of the group's members will ensure everyone is on their toes, because any member can be asked at random to answer a question for the team (Felder & Brent, 1999).


    Active learning is a change from the traditional education method of lecturing, taking notes, and testing. It enables the student to become an active participant in their learning process which makes a student’s quest for knowledge a more enlightening experience. As Confucius said, “I do and I understand.”


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    Chapter 1: Cooperative Learning Overview. (2004, October). InTime: Integrating new technologies into the methods of education. Retrieved February 1, 2008 from

    Chickering A., & Gamson Z., (1987, March). “Seven principles for good practice,” AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7. Retrieved February 1, 2008 from

    Curtis D., (2001, October). More fun than a barrel of…worms?!, in Edutopia Magazine. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from

    Felder R., & Brent R., (1999). FAQs II: Active learning vs. covering the syllabus; Dealing with large classes. Retrieved February 17, 2008 from

    Florida State University, Center for Teaching and Learning. (2008). Chapter 8: Using active learning in the classroom. Retrieved February 1, 2008 from the Center for Teaching and Learning Web site:

    Harrison, J. (n.d.). #165. Games that teach, in Teachers.Net Lesson Exchange. Retrieved February 1, 2008 from

    Schultz, L. (n.d.). We learn (taken from an old proverb). Retrieved February 1, 2008 from Lynn Schultz, Lecturer, Instructional Technology Web site:

    Stalheim-Smith, A. (1998). Focusing on active, meaningful learning (Kansas State University Idea Paper No. 34). Retrieved February 1, 2008, from

    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Center for Teaching and Learning. (2001, January). Course planning and teaching. Retrieved February 1, 2008 from the Center for Teaching and Learning Web site:

    Whiteboard Jeopardy-Style Game. (2002, January). Retrieved February 15, 2008 from Education World Web site: