10 Active Learning Techniques in Engineering

by Dr. Nesreen Alsbou

Transformative learning has the potential to transform the educational process by providing the educators with the tools to raise student’s interest in the material and make the teaching process more effective. A traditional class with homework, exams and an instructor spending all the lecture time lecturing and students taking notes and listening is difficult to be transformative. Active learning is the first step towards transformative learning where the students are actively engaged in the class room, they have more time to absorb the material and interact with the instructor and other students in the class. This creates an environment in the class room that help student to have better understanding and higher retention of the material. Active learning leads to higher performance in homework, exams, projects and research beyond the class room. It simply transforms students from being only passive receivers of information to being active.

There are different terms used when talking about active learning such as cooperative learning and collaborative learning. It is important to distinguish between these terms. When the students are working on solving a problem or doing a project in teams of three or more this is called “cooperative learning.”  When the students are more involved in designing homework assignments and projects this is called “collaborative learning.”

Implementing active learning in a class room requires preparation and some changes to the lecture. The same lecture content is delivered to the students in a better way and the lecture time is used more effectively.

Implementing active learning in a class room requires preparation and some changes to the lecture. However, the lecture content is not changed or replaced with new material. The same lecture content is delivered to the students in a better way and the lecture time is used more effectively. The following are some of the techniques of active learning and cooperative learning I personally use in my engineering classes to enhance student’s understanding and retention of the material:

  1. One Minute Paper: Students are asked to write a one minute note (about the previous lecture, the homework or the material in general) to the instructor on a piece of paper. This provides a fast way for the teacher to have a quick feedback on students understanding of what was covered previously.
  1. Muddiest Point: When there is a long lecture with multiple topics covered, the students are given the chance to discuss the material covered in the lecture and list the most difficult parts of the lecture.
  2. Clarification Pause: During the lecture, the students are given the time to go over the material written on the board, think about it and ask if they have any questions. Then, the lecturer answers the different questions raised before resuming the next part of the lecture.
  1. Questions and answers: Usually during the lecture, questions are raised about the new material presented and questions are solved on the board. A sample of the questions asked include “Why do you think this topic is important?” or “what is the relation between what we were talking about and this technique?” or “which technique is best?”
  1. Critical Thinking, Group Discussion: Students are given a handout with multiple problems and they are asked to apply what they learned in the lecture to solve the problems in groups. They are asked to discuss it together and come up with a single solution that all members agree on.
  1. Critical Thinking, Think-pair-share: Students are asked to work individually on a problem for a short time; then students pair up to compare their answers. Then they have to explain their answer and share it with the rest of the class.
  1. Peer Teaching: If one member of the team solves the problem correctly, He will explain it to the rest of the group and discuss with them why his/her answer is correct and their answer is not. This allows the students to find out what went wrong and the mistake they made in solving the problem. This technique will help the student to avoid these mistakes when doing the homework or the exams.
  1. Cooperative Groups: During the lecture, the students are given handouts with multiple problems to work on them in groups of three or more. When working on class projects, the students are encouraged to form groups from at least two different majors. Group work encourages students to discuss what they learned, clarify any misunderstanding and apply what they learned to solve the problems as a group.
  1. Active Review Sessions: For each exam, students are given a practice test with a set of problems a week in advance. They are encouraged to work on the practice test individually first and then in groups to discuss the answers. During the review session, the students are asked questions about the problems in the practice test and they are given the choice to decide which problems they want the professor to concentrate on.
  1. Active presentations: Students are asked to do projects and then to submit reports and give presentations. Each member of the group is required to give part of the presentation and during the presentation, the students are given the chance to have an open discussion and answer questions about their projects.

There are many active learning techniques available, depending on the class you are teaching you can choose the techniques that best fit your subject material and lecturing style.

References:

  1. Fink, D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  2. FSU, (2011). Using active learning in the classroom. Retrieved from http://distance.fsu.edu/docs/instruction_at_fsu/Chptr8.pdf
  3. Meyers, C. and T. Jones. 1993. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom.San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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