Active Learning takes Courage

We’ve all been there. Whether you’re reading this from your high school desk (probably a fat chance, when competing with Instagram), or as a First Year student in college (same), or as a long time academic (…): we can all remember the first times we were called on to participate in an “academic discussion.” Let’s not pretend there wasn’t some fear there. It’s human nature to have some level of anxiety, particularly if you’re introverted like me. You are in the classroom, with a group of new people who you see in class once or twice a week, and all of a sudden, somehow it’s your turn to talk. All ears on you, half the class peering out the side of their eye, presumably to see how confident the next speaker — you — will be; anxious to see whether you will succeed or fail on the class stage on which we have all been asked to perform. The last thing you wanted to do in that moment is be asked to participate — it seems like a tense situation.

Or, like me, you are the student who really wants to participate: the professor is engaging, the questions are good. You feel like you might have a good answer. But the classroom is tense, and it seems so much safer to remain silent and passive. You can live with the regret of missing your chance to make an impression on the professor and the class, even though it bugs you.

It’s because nobody told you: this type of “active learning” is new, and active learning takes courage.

I remember my First Year of college at UC, Santa Cruz. My Kresge College Core Course was about Culture Wars, and the instructor, W. Stewart Cooper asked the class something about why the prison population was increasing — what was happening in the Culture Wars? I had an interesting answer. I should share. With so much fear mixed with excitement balled up in the pit of my chest, I half-reluctantly raised my hand. Cooper liked me as a student (I ended up becoming his T.A. for two Quarters afterwards), and he had called on me before; but as an 18 year old, tragically insecure, new First year student who commuted, it was my peers that made my voice shake. I said something about the increase in policing and surveillance, and not necessarily more people committing crimes or violent crimes. This was all part of what we were learning about the Drug War of the 1980’s and 90’s, which led to an explosion of our prison population, largely for nonviolent crimes. It was a good point, and even though another student challenged it, Cooper came to my aid and validated my points — which also felt good. I put myself out there; I took a risk, and it was rewarded.

And with each new group of people I engage with, they are bound to hear my voice shake now and again; speaking up in groups still takes courage for me.

Whether or not you can identify with the feelings described above — the fear and anxiety mixed with excitement, the reluctantly raised hand, the shaky voice — being called upon to participate in your own learning, and by extension others’ learning as well, isn’t easy. It takes courage. In the discussion of “active learning” below, I wish to argue that the most engaging, the most transformative, the most rewarding educational experiences are difficult — because they take courage.

I am a “millennial” by all online definitions (although on the early end), and what my generation and Gen Z after me have been criticized for most astutely is our apathy. I want to say that I see this changing, not in spite of social media, but potentially because of it inspiring large scale activism as much as it does isolation and consumerism. But I also want to propose that an “active learning ‘pedagogy’” or way of teaching focused on active learning, can help to change the apathy and disengagement we see in our classes as well.

Active learning has been very popular recently for engaging students among various disciplines, in particular Composition. But I think the first step is to acknowledge with students, students reading this right now, that part of learning is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and that ain’t easy. Ideally, as educators we can help you challenge yourself to speak up within an environment that we set up as a safe space, but also an explicitly brave space for sharing and learning. Active learning in this environment is when new knowledge ultimately gets created, which should be our goal and what empowers our students as active learners.

Active learning as a focus of teaching has recently started to involve students’ learning outcomes in the discussion — which should seem obvious. While the purpose of this short article is to convince students to take their role in active learning seriously, and prepare you for taking risks and pushing yourself past your comfort zone, my argument builds on Peter Ruell’s discussion of a study that challenged students’ misconceptions about active learning. According to Ruell’s reporting on Harvard Physics Professor Louis Deslauriers, students initially believe that they learn more from traditional lectures than from active learning approaches, but this is often based on the fact that students sometimes see challenge as failure. Active learning is more challenging than sitting through a lecture, students thought, when in reality the challenges of active learning improved test scores in their classes. Deslauriers commented, “‘Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. …On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are’”(Ruell). From a student perspective, is it that students feel they are actually learning more, or is it just easier to listen to a lecture? And if we accept that active learning requires “hard work,” is ‘doing the work’ really painting the whole picture? I argue that in these discussions, we need to reframe the discussion from a student perspective where academic labor in active learning environments also involves a certain level of courage as we ask young people to put themselves out there and share personal opinions and feelings about subjects and issues that frame our course content.

So let’s start a discussion about our shaky voices on the first day of class; let’s challenge ourselves to make it a personal goal to speak up more, speak out more, make your voice heard. Then, once you feel empowered, once you feel the validation of making a good point within a larger discussion of ideas from readings, and from others in the class — I think it’s also important to note: “step up and step back.” As a white male in the industry of knowledge production, where I resist top-down, prescriptive ways of teaching and instead adopt a critical pedagogy that constructs knowledge from below, attempting to bring in student voices as much, or optimally more than the teacher’s, I have to be critically self-reflexive about how much my voice is present in all of my conversations. The first year composition course I teach is about empowering students as readers and writers with opinions and thoughts to contribute to the texts they read…but this all depends on whether the students, who might be reading this right now, agree to your role in active learning pedagogy, where what you get out of the class truly depends on what each of you individually put in.

A note for teachers: If we ask our students to build up the courage to engage in various active learning methods in the classroom, we have the responsibility to take necessary community-building steps to establish what Inoue (2015) calls a classroom “ecology.” Treating your classroom as an “ecology” means relationships are built on mutual respect, negotiations, and open channels of communication, both in classroom activities and outside of class through email and Office Hours. To do this, I do recommend some pretty basic community building activities in the classroom, which can be adapted to large classes by splitting into small groups:

  2. Name Game to start class: Every name has a story
  3. Establish Class Values for Learning that foreground an agreement to be respectful, to establish a Safe and Brave Space, …
  4. Partner Pair Share on readings, or Discussion Question
  5. Partner Peer Workshops
  6. Small group JIGSAW with focused Discussion Questions for each section to break down long readings; open-ended Inductive Questions: “After reading this, what themes do you notice?” (vs. deductive questions which say, “Find the themes of discrimination in this article…”).
  7. Small group MIND MAPPING Connections or Themes: “How do authors or TED Talk speakers agree, disagree, or otherwise talk to each other?”
  8. Whole class discussion/analysis of online annotations (using, based on students creating content while you read
  9. In-class class reading and discussion of short, focused articles: like this one.

In my newer experience as a teacher, for the past three years I have developed the activities above, and still face challenges with some students, some groups, some classes. Active learning is hard, and it takes an ecological framework based on symbiosis between all parts of the system — where students work together with the teacher to make the system work. Of course, all people are different, relationships are built on interpersonal dynamics, and this all factors into the student-teacher relationships that build the classroom ecology.

Sometimes active learning fails; sometimes it’s painful at first. Silent rooms; questions that students don’t quite understand; a sleepy 8 a.m. class or a burnt out 3:30 p.m. class, where students have undoubtedly sat through boring lectures all day. Why are these class discussions sometimes painful? The awkward silence in the room. The intentional avoidance of eye contact as the teacher scan the room. The silence…

The silence that needs to be OK sometimes, while students build up the courage to speak. The professor needs to say it’s okay, to take a minute to think, a minute to write, and to build up the courage to speak your mind. Might the awkwardness be replaced by a mutual agreement to establish a respectful environment where everyone feels comfortable to take a minute, where we model for them how to write and collect our thoughts before we speak our opinion. Might it take some time, both in the moment and in their growth as students, to engage in their own learning?

A note for students: What do you think? Students, have you noticed your college teachers trying their best to make you participate in your own learning? How well is it working?

We need you to be there. We need you to be part of the process, to show up for yourself and for your peers. We need you to develop academic habits like taking risks, hearing your voice shake once or twice, so that you can get comfortable hearing it make amazing points based on your insight and experience that nobody else has. As a good friend and colleague has said, “This needs to be a celebration of courage.” This is how education becomes transformative, how people who didn’t think they wanted to make change through academia become inspired to do so — it starts with active learning in classrooms. But in academia, like all social change, this change takes courage.

Works Cited

Inoue, Asao B. Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse, 2015.

Ruell, Peter. “Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think.” The Harvard Gazette. 4 Sept 2019. Online.