How Active Learning Can Fail

Notice: Originally published May 19, 2016 at Teaching Out Loud.

A memorable montage in the 80s movie Real Genius opens with a math professor lecturing to a roomful of students. As the term progresses, more and more students skip class. Each departing student leaves behind their own tape machine to record the lecture. After a while only tape machines remain. Finally, the instructor gives up. He leaves behind his own tape machine to play the lecture. His instructions?

“Math on tape is hard to follow, so: Please Listen Carefully.”

As a comedy fan, I find this scene funny. But as an active learning advocate, I find it horrifying. Why use boring, passive learning techniques? Why turn students and teachers into machines? Let’s make learning active!

I’m all in on active learning. Think-Pair-Share? Check. Creative projects? You bet. Small group discussions? All the time! True story: in just one class session this week, my students engaged in at least five distinct active learning exercises. They defined their learning goals on 3×5 cards. They drafted essay conclusions on whiteboards. They applied a grading rubric to each other’s whiteboard work. They wrote one-minute reflection essays on the grading experience. And they responded to online polls to set up questions for the next class session.

So I see active learning working every day. I also see how it doesn’t work. It’s great to talk about active learning. But we also need to talk about how it can fail. I’ll start by offering three observations from my own teaching.

First, active learning expectations can reduce the effectiveness of other techniques.

In active learning classrooms, learners constantly engage with each other and with technology. They take polls, discuss ideas, and find examples online. So what happens when they’re not engaged in a class activity, but their laptops and phones are right there? What happens, for example, when you have to lecture?

Wait, lecture? Yes. I don’t like lecturing. But sometimes we need more information and I just have to talk to the whole class for a few minutes. When students are constantly engaged in active learning, especially using technology, shifting to listening and note-taking for these few minutes can be challenging.

When this shift occurs in our active learning classroom, students sometimes disregard the lecture. Not always, not even often, but sometimes. What do they do instead? They stay engaged with the technology until it’s time to use it for class again. So, maybe instead of listening to three minutes of lecture on how Facebook’s news algorithm works, they check Facebook until the lecture part is over.

That makes perfect sense. It’s not their problem. It’s my problem. But it’s still a problem. Without careful preparation, pacing, and transition in the class period, active learning expectations can reduce the effectiveness of lecture, however brief, in an active learning classroom.

Second, active learning can raise the stakes for technology failure.

I teach in the Berry Innovation Classroom. It’s packed with technology, and it’s mostly easy to use. I know you don’t need seven projectors and whiteboard walls to engage in active learning. But if you could use them, wouldn’t you?

I sure do! Yes, we do a lot of work with 3×5 cards and Post-It notes. But we also project text and images onto whiteboards and mark them up. Students submit weekly video and text examples of concepts from our readings, then present each other’s favorite examples using their projector stations. We’re always throwing a poll, or the LMS, or some online example, onto screens. Technology isn’t something separate. It’s central to what we do.

So when it fails, we fail. For example, last week the main projector started cutting out during a video. I switched to a secondary projector and used its control panel to take over the room system. Then, during another activity, that control panel timed out and didn’t come back up. A student noticed that one control panel at one station was still active, so I switched to that one. As class ended, the whole room system crashed. We effectively lost about 20% of class time, and we had to skip an important planned activity. (The tech issue’s fixed now.)

It might not seem like much. But downtime in an active learning setting is especially bad. You need that time to transition between activities. And downtime is as low engagement as it gets. Of course I can plan ahead, or have backup markers and 3×5 cards ready at all times. But when there’s no low-tech alternative, the stakes for technology failure are much higher in an active learning classroom.

Third, active learning can increase consequences for student absences.

Active learning depends on participation to be successful. Student attendance is important. In my current class, I allow a few no-questions-asked absences, and then apply penalties for non-attendance thereafter. Students are busy! They have lives, events, families, games, tours, interviews, and many other commitments. Sometimes they miss class, and for good reasons.

In some learning settings, missing class is not a big deal. Students can take home assignments, get the lecture notes from a classmate, or make up that quiz. But in an active learning classroom, missing class means missing the activity. You can’t engage in group discussion with your classmates if you’re at a game. You can’t write on the board. You can’t write a reflection piece on the class session, or give your classmates real-time feedback on their work.

With active learning, learners have the “aha!” moment while they’re engaged in classroom activity. And if they miss class, they miss it. You can’t assign the “aha!” moment for later.

These consequences don’t just fall on slackers. They fall on students who want to participate and do well. For example, student-athletes sometimes have to travel. Religious students observe holidays. That shouldn’t be a problem. But in an active learning classroom, not showing up can result in serious learning consequences.

So, what is to be done? How can we prevent active learning from failing our students?

I wish I had a great answer. I don’t. I know the easy answer is to leave a tape machine at the front of the room. It’s almost always easier to disregard what’s best for learners. But active learning isn’t about the easy answer, especially for teachers. It’s about finding ways to make learners participate in their own learning.

So maybe we could use active learning to solve active learning’s problems. Let’s ask our students: what would you do to solve this problem? How would you apply what you know to make this situation better? How would you make active learning fair, robust, and engaging, even when we have to lecture for a few minutes, or have a tech failure, or miss class?

In our class, students solve learning problems all the time. They design and run entire class sessions. They figure out how to create active learning that gets everyone involved. When things aren’t working, they suggest alternatives. They make their own learning happen, especially when I’m not doing a great job at it. So if anyone can figure out how to make active learning work better, they can.

But it’s not entirely their problem to solve. It’s ours, too. We have more work to do, and we can all learn a lot from doing that work.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019