A New Year’s Resolution: Get (or Stay) Active in the Classroom

by Brian on January 30, 2012

Picture of feet treadmillAs we arrive at the end of the first month of 2012, some may be doing well with New Year’s resolutions while maybe others have long ago abandoned theirs (or not set any to begin with). A popular resolution every year is to lose weight and/or become more physically active, and with the opening of Cal Poly’s sparkling new Recreation Center in mid-January, the physical activity mantra is all the more evident here on campus. So, a focus on getting (or staying) active in the classroom seems fitting.

Dawn Janke (CTL/Writing & Rhetoric Center) and I recently held a workshop for CTL with a similar title to this blog post, and as promised to those participants, I thought I would reflect a bit more on active learning and provide readers with some valuable resources that we have found helpful in developing our own active learning philosophies, strategies, and techniques.

I am fully convinced and have been for some time now that the passive teacher-centered model, so entrenched in academe and driven by its primary method of the lecture (for more, read Death of the Lecture?), will eventually be viewed as a relic of the past. How long will it take? Pioneers like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and more recently Friere and Postman have certainly sown the seeds of change over the years. But, perhaps more than any of these influential theorists and educators, the very nature of our constantly changing and ever-plugged in society will likely be the final push to bring the learner-centered, active learning movement to the mainstream.

Some might misinterpret this to mean that I believe we will “succumb” to the perceived multitasking, attention-deficit, edutainment-seeking needs of the Millennials texting on smartphonesMillennial Generation youth that predominantly inhabit our classrooms. Au contraire, a contributing factor but not the lone driving force by any means; we “slackers” of Generation X along with our Baby Boomer colleagues inhabit this digital world right alongside Millennials, and I believe our collective intolerance of the tedium associated with a lecture-driven passive learning setting will only continue to grow.

Yet, this spark is merely symptomatic and does not provide the evidence that many academics need to convince them to abandon a teaching method that has prevailed in higher education since colonial times. Many active learning advocates, ourselves included in our recent workshop, quote Postman and Weingartner (1971) as saying, “It is not what you say to people that counts; it is what you have them do.  If most teachers have not yet grasped this idea, it is not for the lack of evidence.” While certainly valuable, perhaps the next sentence in their seminal book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, is even more important: 

It may, however, be due to their failure to look in the direction where the evidence can be seen. In order to understand what types of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students do in them.

We are often, particularly in General Education or large survey/introductory classroom settings, so bound to the content that we lose sight of what really matters…are students actually learning the material presented to them? A large lecture hallEvidence, as it were, suggests they are not. Whether formal as presented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning in College Classrooms (2011) or anecdotal in the bell-curve assigned to a Microbiology classes’ 54.32 average, the old model seems to be failing. Yet, we continue to use excuses like, “I am required to cover this content” or “My classroom is too large for active engagement.”

The message is not to abandon content; the message is to re-evaluate the method of delivery. And as for large classrooms, some of the more famous active learning advocates like Eric Mazur (Physics, Harvard) and Richard Felder (Chemical Engineering, NC State) not only teach in large lecture halls but also teach in disciplines stereotypically viewed as having lengthy, complex content to cover.

We all must start somewhere, so realize that just as there are countless tools to aid you in your quest to become physically fit, there are also countless resources on active learning.  Visit CTL’s A to Z resources page and click “A” for “Active learning.”

We’re not there yet, but I do foresee a day when the oft-cited department chair evaluation tale is flipped on its proverbial head:

The department chair enters your classroom for her annual teaching evaluation and sees that you are standing beside a Powerpoint passively lecturing to a classroom filled with blank stares and says, ‘Oh, sorry, I’ll come back on a day when you are teaching.’



Postman & Weingartner (1971). Teaching as a subversive activity. Random House.

Arum & Roksa (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. University of Chicago Press.


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