While active learning offers exciting opportunities for dynamic and interactive learning, it can also present unique challenges that are not present in a lecture-based class. While other pages in the Teaching Tools section focus on broad topics in active learning, there are many other considerations that you may not contemplate when designing a course that arise during the semester. The following are some of the challenges Rutgers faculty have encountered, along with solutions they have employed. Click on a topic to read more. If you have a new challenge or solution for this list, let us know so that we can add it.
Written exams may not accurately capture a students performance in class and may be hard to administer in active learning classrooms.
Grade students on projects rather than exams.
Assign grades for in-class group work, both collectively and individually.
The use of active learning can create a chaotic environment that can be hard to manage, especially for larger courses.
An active environment may require using tools that are less necessary in a typical classroom.
If students change seats frequently, have students place name cards in front of them wherever they sit so that you can call students by name.
Learning Assistants or other in-class help. Assistants have been used to moderate groups or roam large classrooms to interject where necessary.
Using active learning is more than just taking a lecture-based course and interjecting time for discussion or problem-solving. To best make use of active learning and collaborative spaces, class sessions and the overall goals of the course require a rethink.
Visit the Activities page for examples of activities you can use in your class.
Active Learning Community's coordinators. We can meet with you to brainstorm next steps and connect you with experts in course design, learning spaces, and technology at Rutgers. Become a member of the
SCALE-UP community, with maintains an online repository of resources for active learning. Take the long view. Many instructors transform their course over several semesters, integrating active learning as they experiment in class and learn more about what meets their course goals.
Difficulty Covering Entire Subject
Adding activities to a class can make it harder to cover every point covered in a lecture.
Most faculty find this to be a necessary component of using active learning. Instead, focus on covering fewer topics in more depth. You can do this by requiring students to learn topics out of class by reading or watching a pre-recorded lecture. The focus of class meetings can then be to help students think about course content, process it, and test their understanding.
The same features that can create a dynamic learning experience can also create distractions, such as:
noisy small group discussion,
active group and individual monitors, and
the need of instructor to constantly move to make eye contact with students. Solutions
Direct student’s attention where it needs to go. For example, tell students “now I’d like to direct your attention to the whiteboard, the screen, etc.…"
Ask students to put down or temporarily close their electronic devices or unshare images from group monitors. You can also shut down or blank room displays yourself.
Ask for quiet in the room when it is time to work individually or reflect on a topic.
Because the shuffling of papers can be distracting, rather than handing out individual papers, create folders for each group and ask them to remove handouts as they are necessary.
If a student is distracted or engaging in distracting behavior, move towards or stand near them.
Ask students early in the semester if they have identified distractions that need to be minimized.
Loss of Class-wide Engagement
Some instructors who have built group work and discussion into their class miss the opportunity to explore the diverse opinions that can emerge in a full-class discussion or when students interact with students outside their group.
Not all interaction needs to be limited to the tables. You can set aside time for group discussion with the entire class. If you transition from small group to large group discussion, try not to just repeat the same discussion. You can transition by having small groups report out and by building on the initial conversation.
To spur broader interaction, use activities in which students have to interact with students at other tables.
Loss of Control Over Material Covered in Class
Moving away from presenting material means that it may be harder to control the direction of class discussion.
Remove the expectation that all points in a topic need to be covered in a class. Instead, require your students to cover these topics out of class by reading or watching a pre-recorded lecture. Then, use class time to hone in on the questions and areas of misunderstanding raised by students.
Building your presentation in Prezi allows you to quickly access “slides” relating to different material rather than being limited to advancing slides forward or backward, as you would in PowerPoint. This can allow you to pull up information relevant to the direction the class takes the discussion.
No "Front of the Room."
Unlike traditional classrooms which have direct sight lines to the instructor, board, and screen at the front of the room,
Active Learning Classrooms have various focal points - not all of which are viewable by every student. As a result, some students may need to turn to view the instructor or presentation material, making it hard to take notes. At the same time, instructors may find that not all students are able to see them at the same time. Solutions
Active Learning Classrooms are designed to facilitate collaboration and group work. Rather than designing a class plan that requires that your entire class look at the same focal point, consider building in group work where students interact at the group level.
Instead of writing on a board, use the
document camera and send the image to the room displays so students can more easily see and take notes. Teach using a portable device such as a
tablet connected to the room displays wirelessly so you can move around room while teaching. Visit the Solstice page for more information on wireless display sharing in DCS classrooms.
Active learning can run counter to what a student might expect out of a college class.
Communicating the class expectations and the rationale for using active learning are key.
Notify students how the class will use active learning as early as possible, ideally in the course description and definitely in the syllabus. Explain the different types of activities that will be utilized and what type and level of participation will be expected of students.
Early in the semester, devote time to discussing the broad aims of the course and how active learning is central to those goals, for example, discussing how students will develop their ability to analyze concepts, utilize their knowledge, and work collaboratively. Tie active learning to the development of skills that will help students in school and in their future careers.
When setting up specific activities, explain the reasons for using them and what students are expected to learn.
Students Who Don't Want to Interact
Some students are reluctant or unwilling to interact with their fellow students.
Early in the semester set expectations for student-instructor and student-student interaction, including:
if students should raise their hand or use a microphone to talk to the entire class,
if students should develop guidelines for discussing potentially hot-button issues,
explain your rationale for these expectations. Indicate that the class will require student involvement in the course description so that students who are not comfortable contributing know this before registering.
Cold call on students, but - to aid those that are less comfortable with cold allowing - allow them to confer with their group if they need help.
Having students engage in group work in rooms with traditional furniture can be difficult. Configuring rooms for group seating can be chaotic and time consuming.
There are several steps you can take to minimize the disruption to your class when reconfiguring rooms for group seating.
Instructor students to form groups when they arrive to the room, so that the students are already in group seating for the start of class.
Project a diagram of the group assignments and seat configurations required for an activity to minimize confusion. You can share the diagram a few minutes before it will be time for students to move so that they understand it in advance of moving their seats.
Assign students to seats in a "typical" row configuration. Based your group assignments on having students near each other cluster so that group formation is less chaotic.
Some groups may have a hard time remaining on task and working towards the learning outcomes you envision.
Fostering good group work requires some management by the instructor.
Use ice breakers following the formation of groups so that students feel comfortable interacting with their peers.
Consider the impact of how you form groups on the work product of these groups. View our Forming Groups page for more information.
Create a mechanism for groups to collectively and individually assess how they and their peers are performing. This will create accountability, reflection, and stress the importance of cooperative work.
Have students create a contract the defines group members roles and expectations.