by Susannah McGowan
Recently, I facilitated a workshop on student learning referencing the Freeman et. al. paper on Active Learning in Math, Science and Engineering. Briefly, the Freeman et. al. paper from the National Academy of Sciences embarked on a study of 228 studies on active learning in the classroom. Their findings point to an increase in exam results and a decrease in failure rates when active learning is employed in the classroom. Their operational definition of active learning is “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.” There are many key considerations to make from this study when we think of engaged learning and providing opportunities to help students integrate knowledge into practice. I would like to focus on one in particular: the amount of time devoted to student-oriented activities in class.
This study is a “must-read” for everyone interested in engaged learning. The empirical evidence conveyed in the study points to an improvement in exam results and decrease in failure rates. How do active learning techniques contribute to the motivation occurring in these results? Apart from the breadth and scope of the study itself, one particular item struck me as crucial: of all the 228 studies meta-analyzed in this report, the authors estimated that time devoted to “active learning” in class or during a lecture was between 10%-15%.  The activities grouped under the “active learning” umbrella within the studies analyzed ranged from “cooperative group activities in class,” in-class worksheets, clickers, problem-based learning (PBL), and studio classrooms.”   
When I think of 10-15% of class time devoted to such activities, it seems like a manageable amount of time to experiment with active learning techniques even for the most skeptical professor. It reminds me of James Lang’s recent Chronicle post where he listed three simple things to do at the beginning of a course drawing from How Learning Works (Ambrose et. al.) and How College Works (Chambliss & Takacs): take time to greet students at beginning of class (a few each meeting), provide a framework for the day, and visualize disciplinary wonderment or show students your genuine interest in the topic for the day. Now add to this, the 10% rule to carve out time in the class to provide a structured opportunity to do a “think-pair-share” or minute paper (Angelo & Cross, 1999), answer a clicker question (Weiman, 2014), or present a relevant challenge related to your own research. Each of these methods can be used all at once or in combination yet they all demonstrate an effort to invite students into disciplinary practice.
In the context of current discussions on research-based or evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning, these are small increments of impact that open up the door to potential shifts in how students engage with disciplinary content. And in looking at key performance indicators in exams and failure rates, as Freeman et. al. do, aren’t we really talking about giving students small increments of motivation?
Despite this evidence, one participant in the workshop I facilitated a few weeks ago wondered why students should not be able to sit for an hour-long lecture as he had when he was a student. Shouldn’t students be required to develop that “skill” as well; the skill of listening? Of course. Yet it was clear this participant (an Engineering professor) relies on the ability of students to actively listen to the lecture content. In a comment on his own blog post, Derek Bruff wrote, “When one lectures, one can hope or expect that students are engaged in active listening, but it’s quite possible that many students aren’t, that they’re just scribing in a more passive manner.” Part of the “hope for listening” found in my workshop participant requires further examination and the need to ask, how do you want students to listen to your lecture? When you ask yourself that question, a whole list of implicit skills emerges: listening to the lecture requires matching up what was listened to to prior knowledge; listening to the lecture requires active reflection and individual meaning-making to make sense of what students are listening to; listening to the lecture requires students to store information (and questions about the material) to retrieve it at a later time in the form of an assignment; if the sum of these “listening” actions are met then the student might be able to incorporate the lecture into assignments, projects, or labs. As the research suggests, why not listen to students for at least 10% of your class time to see how they listened to you?


Susannah McGowan works as a visiting teaching fellow in the Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching(CALT) at University College London.  Most recently, she contributed to a Higher Education Academy (HEA) report on SoTL practices in the UK.  Research interests include threshold concepts, SoTL, effective technologies for learning.

How to cite this post:

McGowan, Susannah. 2016, February 11. Small Steps, Big Impact in Student Engagement. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from