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How can we engage passive students?

01 Mar

Here is a quick summary  of an article titled “From Passive to Active Learning: Helping Students Make the Shift.” by Marilla Svinicki, University of Texas at Austin. 


In this article, Marilla speculates why students may be resistant to active learning and suggests what we can do to help them get engaged in active learning. 

Here are the essentials from the article. 

1.     Why students may be resistant to active learning?

  • Students continue to use learning strategies that they had used  in high school or college such as listening to the instructor and taking notes.
  • This ‘out-dated ‘ learning strategies may not work for active learning- students may be taking note of everything that is being said instead of knowing what to focus on.
  • Students’ conception of learning is that learning is receiving information; they have not accepted the idea that knowledge is to be constructed
  • Students associate learning with memorizing and knowing facts.
  • Students have difficulty in handling situations with no right or wrong answer. Hence you often have requests for model answers.
  • Some students may be pressed for time and may be strategically minimizing effort on  their course work to cope with other pressing matters. 

2.    What can we do?

  • It is worth taking time to explain to students why it is important for them to participate actively (not just for the grades).
  • We should ensure that the activities are relevant to the course objectives and not just something to do.
  • We need to make the learning objectives clear to the students.
  • To overcome students’ belief that there is only one right answer, we could expose students gradually to complex situations.
  • When using more complex problems, we could provide sufficient modeling of the process ( Note: modeling process is different from giving the model answer).
  • We should encourage students to participate in discussions and share their view points.
  • We should try and create an open learning environment where students feel safe to make mistakes and learn

 Here are couple of things that Marilla had not mentioned but maybe worth considering.

  • In wanting our students to engage in active learning, we are assuming that all our students actually know what is active learning.  This assumption needs to be tested in the classroom and if necessary,  we may need to help students understand what is active learning to begin with. 
  • We could engage students in discussions on their conceptions of learning and help them see the importance of constructivist learning (and hence the need to participate).
  • We should encourage students to reflect on their learning strategies.
  • We need to provide a conclusion/summary of learning so the students know if they have understood what needs to be.
  • We need to provide prompt and appropriate feedback, not just on the content but also on students’ learning strategies.

I had first published  this article as an e-Post at SIM univeristy.

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