Bringing "Active Learning" Into the Classroom

Last year, as some of you may remember, I taught Pennsylvania History for the first time.

At Messiah College, the Pennsylvania History course attracts a cross-section of students–history majors, public history students, and non-history majors seeking a “pluralism” general education credit.  Part of the course employs the so-called “coverage” model.  In other words, we “cover” a significant swath of Pennsylvania history from William Penn to the present.  The other part of the course is skills based.  Students learn how to do an oral history, they gain experience in doing local history, and they make contributions to our Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

Last year I was very excited to get the students engaged in “active learning,” or, as we historians call it, the “doing” of history.  Unfortunately, not all of the students in the class had the same level of excitement.  While some students participated enthusiastically in an oral history project and a digital exhibit using Omeka software, other students preferred to consume their history by listening to me lecture.  My student evaluations were fine, but several students wanted me to know that they did not appreciate the “skills” dimension of the course.

I am teaching Pennsylvania History again this semester.  Students will still be “doing history.”  I kept the oral history assignment.  I dropped the Omeka assignment and added a couple of local history assignments that will require students to explore historical records related to Harrisburg.

As I think about how to get my students connected to the more “active” dimensions of this course, I found David Gooblar’s piece at Vitae to be very helpful.  Here is a taste of “Why Students Resist Active Learning“:

Be explicit up front. As I’ve noted, a course in which students are expected to be active participants can be a bit of a shock for some. So make the case for your pedagogical choices. Read up on the benefits of active learning (two good places to start are here and here) and, particularly at the beginning of the semester, let your students know that there are well-researched reasons behind the way you’ve designed the course. Treat students like colleagues whose cooperation you need and they will be much more likely to buy in to new approaches.
Be open. Throughout the semester, get into the habit of explaining the justification behind each activity as you introduce it. Let your students know why a particular exercise or topic will be useful to them, either for their final grade, or (better yet!) in their lives outside the classroom walls….
Vary your teaching methods. Some students may resist your attempts to integrate active-learning strategies simply because you rely too heavily on one kind of activity. You want your teaching to benefit both the extrovert who loves collaborative exercises and the bookworm who excels at in-class writing assignments. Mix it up on a regular basis and keep everyone on their toes.
Lecture sometimes. Finally, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are (still!) perfectly good reasons to lecture to your students — some of the time. For one, you know a lot about the course topic and students will benefit from you telling them what you know. But perhaps more important, a lecture component can help increase the benefits of the learner-centered activities that take up the rest of class time….

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