This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page

Active learning the key to retaining knowledge, says faculty group

A group of faculty members are working to change the way students learn at UConn.

"The movement is to try to get away from passive learning to active learning," says Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning. And that means decreasing the reliance on lectures as the predominant mode of teaching.

"As many of us have learned, painfully, what we teach sometimes has little connection with what students are learning," says Chuck Vinsonhaler, a professor of mathematics.

Barker, Vinsonhaler, and others believe that when students play an active role, they learn more effectively.

"If students listen, they learn very little; if they see, they learn a little more; but if they actually do something, they learn an awful lot," Barker says.

Vinsonhaler agrees. "The obvious benefit (of active learning) is that students learn more and retain it longer," he says. "This is especially important in the sciences ... which tend to build on previous knowledge."

Barker and his colleagues hope to encourage the development of courses in which students work by themselves and with others, in pairs or small groups, with faculty playing the role of enablers or resources.

There are already many activities at the University that follow this model. Robert McDonald, a professor of dramatic arts, says the fine arts have followed this approach for many years. "In music, students learn to play together; in theater, they work together on a production," he says. Still, McDonald is excited that the approach is catching on. "I'm the most cynical, most reserved person," he says, "but this is very exciting stuff."

In July, Barker, Vinsonhaler and McDonald were among a group of six UConn faculty members at a five-day summer academy in Snowbird, Utah, run by the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE).

The chancellor, recently briefed by the group, has enthusiastically endorsed the concept. "The vision established by the strategic task force on undergraduate education had at its core student-centered, active learning. In the educational process, a student-centered learning model builds upon elements which we know, from practical experience, promote effective teaching and learning," says Mark Emmert, chancellor and provost for university affairs. "Such learning can play a major role in the enhancement of the quality of education at the University."

Judith Meagher, a professor and associate dean of education, who also attended the Utah conference, says the First Year Experience Program and the strategic plan "are causing us to look more critically and in-depth at the way we're working with undergraduates. It's a good time to be exploring some alternatives."

Barker says he now hopes to expand the core group to include administrators and students, as well as additional faculty, to increase the opportunities for active, or "student-centered," learning at the University.

Members of the group have adopted a slogan to help draw attention to the approach: "At UConn everyone majors in learning, and all credits transfer to life."

McDonald, who crafted the slogan, says the wording is significant: "'Everyone' means we're going to try to break the barriers between students and faculty. Lecturing from a notebook creates a tremendous barrier," he says. "The University should be a community of learners." McDonald adds that the words "all credits transfer to life" are critical too. "There's a lot of concern in education about transferability. Students tend to take one isolated course and they can't apply it in another class."

As the first step, Barker and his colleagues plan to find out from other faculty what's going on at the moment, and to offer workshops through the Institute for Teaching and Learning that will provide faculty members with examples of strategies that can be adapted to different classroom situations.

Barker says the approach is not limited to small groups but can also work well in large classes. Faculty members can create assignments that require students to conduct research, think, and discuss issues with their peers, he says.

He says technology also can help. Students can receive materials and share results electronically, and can work together in the evening, not just in class.

Barker says being actively involved in their education will better equip students with the skills and information they will need later in life.

He adds that the approach will benefit faculty members, too. "If we concentrate on active student learning, we as faculty will learn more."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu