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Active Learning: The Learner’s Perspective

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The following resource was created by three CTL Undergraduate Student Teaching and Learning Consultants as part of the Students as Pedagogical Partners initiative during Spring 2020 when they reflected back on their experiences with active learning. The three consultants, Jennifer Lee (CC ‘21), Samatha McAlevy (GS ‘22), and Kalisa Ndamage (SEAS ‘21), represent student voices from across disciplines and the three undergraduate schools.



In this resource, we share our experiences with active learning, some of our and our peers’ resistances to it, and with the transition to remote learning, a few suggestions for engaging students in online learning environments.

To break down the process of bringing active learning into the classroom, Fink (2013) developed three components, that when implemented, ensure powerful learning experiences:

1. Information and Ideas
Primary texts are put in conversation with secondary sources to expose students to the process of idea and solution development.

2. Experiences
Doing is emphasized over observing and “rich learning experiences” are promoted.

3. Reflection
Allow students to reflect on what and how they are learning such as to bridge the connections between content, activities, and application.

When sharing our stories, we each highlighted how Fink’s three components weaved themselves into our active learning experiences. These narratives highlight the variety of ways that these pillars can be incorporated into the instructors’ courses.

Our Active Learning Experiences

We each reflected on the most impactful active learning experience that we’ve had at Columbia. A common theme among our reflections below is how our professors successfully demonstrated the relevance and applicability of our coursework.

Kalisa Ndamage:

An introductory course was one of my most significant active learning experiences. My professor assigned me the seemingly impossible task of using all the class’s engineering principles we had learned to (within a few weeks) complete a project that NASA has been tirelessly working on for years—colonizing the moon. 

Although there were countless struggles, this rich learning experience forced me to think critically about which real-world problems could be solved with engineering principles rather than only learning about how to apply equations to the same problems we’d seen in class. By giving me a very open-ended problem statement of predicting all requirements for a successful moon colony (with regular instructor guidance), I was forced to do the dirty work of figuring out many of my own questions that could be solved with the class material.

Group collaboration was an important opportunity to reflect and understand how other students approached the same problem. This was valuable for showing me both the versatility and limitations of the models from class; for example, only from learning of other students’ approaches did I realize that calculating the reactor volume before the reactor rate (rather than the other way around) resulted in very different oxygen levels for the people in the moon enclosure. From this, I learned that truly understanding a concept means also comprehending its full breadth of applications.

I was also consistently forced to uncover information on my own about the theories that I’d learned by studying their primary sources, such as scientific articles, to understand if they could be applied within the context of our project. This solidified my understanding of the concepts and taught me the thought process that comes with developing an intelligent solution while understanding its flaws and assumptions.

This was an amazing moment for me because instead of solving a problem by simply identifying which equation it’s suited to, the project’s freedom and open-endedness had me constructing the best path to a solution beforehand because I did not have a perfectly designed problem for every given moon dilemma. This had me actively involved in problem-solving instead of passively memorizing and regurgitating material.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What do you feel is the most exciting real-world problem your class’s content can help solve? How can students get involved in meaningfully tackling that problem?
  • What opportunities for reflection (asking students to reflect on what and how they are learning) can be incorporated into your course?

Jennifer Lee:

A graduation requirement, I was initially skeptical about this course on Western philosophers. Plato, I thought. How dry. But I came to love the class, and much of that I credit to the active learning strategies our professor used.

To start, the course was built on exposure to information and ideas. We were reading primary sources, so we didn’t just talk about the vagaries of Aristotelian ethics or Marxism; rather, we could point to lines in the text to read aloud to explain our own thoughts, grappling with these writers ourselves to draw our own conclusions. Then we were asked to reflect, constantly: what I had feared—that we would read these ideas merely to understand—was not the case, as we were asked to comprehend, synthesize, and then ask ourselves what the implications were for us as people studying in the West. We could have opinions responding to and bolstered by specific passages in the text. We did this in the form of pair-and-share discussions and twice-weekly discussion posts, and I found myself looking forward to how our professor would bring up and incorporate in class student comments from that day’s discussion posts. On the last day, our professor brought in old magazines, scissors, and glue, and asked us to make collages representing our experiences of the class—a final reflection on the ways we had grown and learned that year, and a way of thinking about what the lessons of those two semesters had come to mean for us. This activity gave us the opportunity to share our experience visually and translate it to a new medium that we could share with each other, challenging us to think of new ways to communicate our own ideas. It also gets at the third pillar of active learning that we engaged in: rich learning experiences, in this case that of learning by doing.

The class was incredibly hands-on. When we learned about private property a la John Locke and Rousseau, our professor brought in graham crackers, icing, and candy, and we split into groups to build gingerbread houses: “When did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? … or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could” (Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government), we read, as our professor asked us whose property the gingerbread houses were. After winter break, our professor brought in homemade cookies, icing, and candy, and we learned about Adam Smith’s division of labor through a competition to see which group could decorate the greatest number of cookies in the least amount of time. This time, we experienced the plight of the laborer when the professor claimed all the cookies were hers because she had provided the capital necessary to produce them. 

I loved the class for the sugar and sweets, and I loved it for how it brought these old, dead texts alive for me in ways that I continue to make use of in my classes today.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What kinds of experiential activities can you bring to the classroom to serve as concrete examples of more abstract concepts?
  • How can things that students care about or enjoy (e.g., friendly competition, food, arts and crafts) be brought into the classroom to illustrate and capture interest in course material?

Samatha McAlevy:

In my first semester at Columbia, I enrolled in a science class being offered for the first time which spanned a number of different subjects. In addition to being academically challenging, the instructor integrated active learning into the curriculum, with high expectations of participation, reflection, and feedback. Additionally, experiential demonstrations and activities were a mainstay of the class. We even got out of the classroom on occasion, going either outdoors or to other facilities for special lessons. Our instructor was always enthusiastic and generous with their time, and made it clear that they cared deeply about each student.

I’ll give an example to show how this process worked. We would start with a simple observation, such as “objects appear larger or smaller depending on the distance from the observer.” We then were taught the formula to quantify such an observation, so that if given the observed size, actual size, or distance, we could calculate the other part. Another class may have stopped there; after all, we had been taught the concept and the math, and after practicing a few times in problem sets, could probably have found the right answer on a test. But this class didn’t stop there.

Instead, we ran a short “experiment” with lines of various lengths on pieces of paper. We calculated the distances at which each line could be made to look the same size as another, and then tested to confirm our predictions. At this point I watched some of my peers begin to expand their understanding of the concept and math we had previously learned. But we didn’t stop there either.

Later, the instructor divided us into groups, handed out lumps of clay, and set a beach ball on a table. Each group was to mold a “planet,” sized in proportion to the beach ball “sun,” and calculate its corresponding distance based on the real size of the solar system. Then we left the classroom and put our model solar system together. Standing at “Earth,” the beach ball appeared precisely the same size as the sun in the sky, confirming our calculations; standing at other “planets” let us visualize their perspective (we didn’t finish the solar system, as properly placing Pluto would have taken a subway ride). This type of visceral understanding also gave us a solid footing when we learned how to calculate a star’s luminosity or the temperature of a planet later on.

Each part of that process, and each project throughout the semester, felt less like a series of assignments or lessons and more like a puzzle being slowly assembled piece by piece. We discovered new pieces with each cycle of observation, instruction, application, and revelation, and put them all together through the hand-on projects that our instructor repeatedly linked back to our bigger picture learning goals. Beyond each individual lesson, we were learning how to approach the world scientifically and quantitatively. Without the tools of active learning, none of these meta-lessons, which I consider the real takeaway from the course, would have been possible.

In the end, the Columbia Core science requirements could have been satisfied with much less effort on the part of us students and the instructor. This class and its commitment to active learning, however, taught me to think in new ways and also gave me the confidence to take on later academic challenges that I probably would have avoided otherwise. 

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which concepts do students typically struggle with? What thought experiments or analogies could help students appreciate or more deeply comprehend these ideas?
  • How can you break up the typical classroom routine to capture student interest in course material?

Combating Student Resistance to Active Learning:

When introduced with enthusiasm, clear purpose, and effective communication, well-planned forays into active learning can become the highlight of our semesters, as showcased in our preceding examples. However, it is important to acknowledge that students may resist attempts at active learning, especially when the purpose of the strategies used isn’t clear and makes active learning seem like busy work that can be overwhelming. 

Since active learning strategies are only as effective as the extent to which we engage with the material, it is crucial to bring us students on board. We have found that we are more receptive to engaging when the instructor provides clear explanations and is actively involved as a guide on the side, facilitating the experience. We describe how these two strategies—explanation and facilitation—can help us engage in active learning.

Explanation answers the question in the back of every student’s mind when asked to do an active learning activity: why are we doing this? Far too often students are assigned an onerous task and told what to do, how to do it, but not why. Good active learning work should always have a purpose beyond simply learning the facts. When we understand the significance of the work we’re doing, it’s much easier to feel enthusiasm and stay engaged, and the results are usually better too.

  • “I hate doing work that feels meaningless. But when I really understand its purpose, when I have more of a reason to do it than just the grade, I have ten times the motivation to do my best work.” – Sam

Facilitation of the learning process according to our needs helps keep us engaged, but facilitation is much more than displaying charisma and keeping our attention. To students, a great professor feels like a partner who is equally invested in our learning. When things are challenging, confusing, or even overwhelming, a great teacher is right there with us to keep us on track and moving forward. When we know that a professor cares about us, it’s much easier to ask for help when we need it and persist through challenges.

  • “One professor wouldn’t just encourage us to attend office hours when struggling with our final project, but would schedule mandatory meetings for us to update him on our progress and share our hiccups along the way which he guided us through.” – Kalisa


Increasing Engagement and Learning Online

With the transition to remote teaching and learning in Spring 2020, we’ve seen how pedagogy and learning activities have needed to adapt to the new reality. The following are a few techniques we’ve experienced that have helped us stay engaged and present as remote learners.

  • For live Zoom class sessions (or virtual office hours): 
    • Ask students to have their cameras on whenever possible (if their WiFi allows and they are comfortable doing so). We’re more likely to stay engaged when we feel seen. Let us know you’re focused on us as well as on the lesson.
    • Encourage feedback—and give feedback often. This can be through discussions via the chat feature, polls, or Zoom’s Nonverbal Feedback feature. Even an instructor’s nod or thumbs-up can help us feel connected to class.
    • Break up the monotony of a lecture by sending students into breakout rooms to discuss, work through problems, and teach each other. We miss speaking with our peers sometimes.
    • Use polls and walk through why we may have picked the incorrect option. The only thing worse than getting an answer wrong is not knowing where we went wrong.
    • Demo or model your thinking for your learners (E.g., walk through the steps of solving an equation by hand; annotate text or an image). As you present, help your students follow along. Consider using a tablet and stylus so students can see what you write or draw, or use the camera on a mobile device to capture what you handwrite or draw on a writing surface (e.g., piece of paper, whiteboard).  
  • For online assessments:
    • Consider offering projects instead of exams. This provides us with more authentic opportunities to actively connect the material we are learning and apply a broader array of disciplinary and professional skills.


For more ways to engage learners online, visit the CTL’s resource Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom and the Engagement section of the Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones resource. 

Reference: Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences : An integrated approach to designing college courses. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.tc.idm.oclc.org