Rich environments for active learning in higher education – Antonio Calderon

Currently, most of the universities in the world aim to create and sustain an outstanding and distinctive learning environment for all their students. This is addressed by ensuring a strong, well-designed and dynamically delivered curricular base and by providing a distinctive pedagogical climate, in which the students have to assume an active role. Nevertheless, this is not an easy road to drive considering among other factors, the new generation of students (generation Z) and the significant change that the higher education landscape is undergoing as a result of digital technology.

This notion of active learning was initially defined by Bonwell and Eison (1991) as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. There is also an hegemonic trend that links active learning with the types of pedagogy that are rooted in constructivism and constructionist and calls for student participation that is not just social, but also meaningful cognitive engagement with the content, both individually and collectively. This often involves (i) purposefully designed learning activities, (ii) situations that draw students into thinking with peers, in small groups, and (iii) the million dollar fact, a motivated and predisposed for learning student. However, what kind of learning activities and/or environments are supposed to be the ones that activate that optimal pedagogical climate for the student to learn and be engaged, even in amotivated or disengaged students?

The rich environments for active learning were introduced by Grabinger and Dunlap (1995) as comprehensive instructional systems that encourage students to develop initiative and responsibility for their own learning within an active context. In addition, (i) promote study and investigation within authentic, realistic, meaningful, relevant, and information-rich contexts; (ii) encourage the growth of student responsibility, initiative, decision-making, and intentional learning; cultivate an atmosphere of knowledge-building learning communities that utilize collaborative learning among students and teachers; (iii) utilize dynamic, interdisciplinary, generative learning activities that promote high-level thinking processes (e.g., analysis, synthesis, problem-solving, experimentation, creativity, and examination of topics from multiple perspectives) to help students integrate new knowledge with old knowledge and thereby create rich and complex knowledge structures; and, (iv) assess student progress in content and learning-to-learn through realistic tasks and performances.

Leading edge successful experiences of implementation of the principles of a rich environment for active learning, as the one of Song et al, (2017), shows for example the utility of integrating popular social networking sites (such as Pinterest) as part of classroom assignments to provide a space in which students can actively explore, design and apply course-related ideas and thus extend their collaboration and informal learning. Currently, research also shows that in order to create an active learning environment it is worthwhile to involve students in creative practices. For example creating an outlet or poster for the reflection on information and further exploration, or reflecting on a tweet thread in a blog commentary in a multimedia format (e.g., a video, combining pictures and language commentary), in a formal assignment or in any other student-preferred medium or artifact of expression. There are also evidences supporting student-generated content (e.g., podcast, infographics, blogs) as a unique learning activity influencing specific cognitive, high-level thinking processes and active learning. My own personal experience with using web-based presentation tools such as Piktochart®, Powtoon® and Genially® has been very powerful in creating a rich environment for active learning and the student response despite the initial resistance along with ongoing support, has been largely positive. The visual below shows the main features of the “mini-challenge” experience I created for the students and how I presented each mini-challenge to them.

Antonio_mini challenge.png

Yet, in order to have a “transformative effect” on learning and engagement, and avoid a negative student  experience, it is crucial to have a clear idea of what might be achieved through creating active learning environments with the use of digital technology. We need to develop a better understanding of the realities of students’ encounters with digital technology and this approach to learning (see Selwyn, 2016).However, it is extremely important to note that regardless of the learning activity used, it has to be designed carefully, aligned attentively with module learning outcomes and instructional strategies, and after this decide if digital technology could be used to enhance active learning, or not.

Additional Resource: The UL “Engaged Learning” Framework

Antonio Calderon is a Lecturer in Sport Pedagogy for the PESS Department, view his profile here.  Antonio’s Email Address:
Antonio’s Twitter: @acalderon_pe

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