A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice
reviewed by Rachel Oblath & Michelle V. Porche - January 24, 2017
Title: A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice
Author(s): Paul Baepler, J. D. Walker, D. Christopher Brooks, Kem Saichaie, & Christina I. Petersen
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, LLC., Sterling
ISBN: 1620363003, Pages: 280, Year: 2016
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A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice offers both an introduction to, and practical guidance for, college faculty teaching in Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs). ALCs were developed at the University of Minnesota by adapting aspects of North Carolina State Universitys Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) approach and Massachusetts Institute of Technologys Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) approach.
Teaching in ALCs is a relatively new pedagogical approach growing across the nations campuses. It differs from traditional college classroom instruction in several ways. Within a space optimized for active learning: (a) students sit in small groups at round tables, eliminating the front of the classroom as the central focal point that instructors generally occupy, and (b) enhanced technological options are used, including flat-panel display projection systems at each group table. ALCs offer the potential for learning environments that are more engaging and enriching than the traditional college lecture format. However, they also present many challenges for faculty members who may be unfamiliar with them.
The book begins by familiarizing readers with the history of ALCs and an overview of the empirical research supporting their use. The development and implementation of this pedagogy are based on the theory that classroom space configurations influence both learning and teaching. ALC space is starkly different from traditional approaches and this influences the practices engaged within it. As a result, it warrants an evidence-based rationale for skeptical instructors and students alike. The research makes a compelling argument for at least attempting some of these approaches. The authors suggest starting with a modest adjustment to a class session before investing in a more substantial redesign of space and curricula. Unfortunately, a significant period of time is required to build an entire course using ALCs. The research shows the effectiveness of ALCs as being superior to traditional methods and unrelated to student demographic factors. However, a later chapter provides specific strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and non-native speakers. This points to the need for further research to assess how well this approach works across these student characteristics and whether it provides the most effective supports.
The bulk of the text focuses on guiding readers through the process of teaching in an ALC, including concrete examples from the natural sciences. To a lesser extent, it also includes examples from the social sciences and humanities. As a result, the impression, likely unintended, is that ALCs are more relevant for natural science courses with laboratory work. Although other domains are identified, the relative lack of examples for social sciences and humanities courses is a limitation. However, this book provides enough information for readers to seek out additional resources available on the internet showcasing ALC environments at various institutions across the country. For example, there are chapters focused on the most common teaching challenges in ALCs. This includes the development of assignments and activities, assessment and feedback, and supporting diverse groups of students. The detailed strategies provided for engaging and managing students in complex and group-based work are especially useful. They include explicit guidelines for choosing groups, motivating collaboration, and ensuring that contributions are fair and substantiated.
Each chapter concludes with a compilation of graphic organizers and other useful tools that faculty members could implement when adapting their curricula for ALCs. Especially helpful and informative are feedback from both faculty members and students who have participated in ALCs. Instructors can expect to need more time for course preparation. For example, active learning activities could take place both before and during class, may use technology resources, and could complement brief lecture periods within the class session. This requirement will be a substantial change for instructors who prepare for courses solely centered on the lecture format.
The primary audience for this book is college instructors who will be teaching in ALCs, which are very specific learning environments and rigidly defined in this context. The text is limited in offering suggestions for instructors who do not have access to the enhanced technology available in ALCs or teach in classrooms without flexibility in furniture or setup. Despite this, anyone who teaches at the college level could benefit from reading this text. This includes those who would like to create more student-centered and interactive classrooms. It would also help support those who are interested in using flipped classroom or hybrid approaches. Many of the tools, examples, and suggestions can be adapted for use even in classrooms that do not meet the strict definition of an ALC.
The book is well-structured and easily navigable, even for those who would like to choose specific chapters rather than reading it completely. Instructors who need to develop course material by a certain deadline can easily focus on the most relevant chapters. They could also simply start with the tables and graphic organizers at the end of each chapter for practical guidance. Although the history of ALCs and an overview of supporting research are both important and interesting, they are not essential for using the more practical aspects of this volume.
Overall, A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom provides a gentle and encouraging introduction to those who may be unsure of how to make the most of teaching within ALCs. College administrators could also gain insight in establishing and supporting these types of cooperative learning environments. The emphasis on practical guidance and addressing the most common challenges for faculty make it a useful reference for both seasoned and novice ALC instructors alike.
This book challenges instructors and colleges to create thoughtful, interactive, and challenging learning environments for students. It is an important reminder that all classroom arrangements have limitations for students and teachers. However, both empirical research and anecdotal feedback can help minimize challenges and maximize learning experiences. ALCs are a model holding incredible potential for transforming learning environments.