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 reflect student performance in class and may be hard to administer in active learning classrooms.
- Grade students on projects, in addition to or in place of exams.
- Assign grades for in-class group work, collectively and/or 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 or in front of them wherever they sit so that you can call students by name. DCS Active Learning Classrooms have whiteboard tents that can be used for this purpose.
- Use Learning Assistants or other in-class help. Assistants have been used to moderate groups or roam large classrooms to interject where necessary.
- In larger classrooms, it may be hard for students to hear each other across the room. Larger Active Learning Classrooms are equipped with table-top microphones that students can use to participate. In addition to providing amplification, asking that students use the microphones to participate can also help moderate discussions and ensure that students are not trying to speak over one another. For lecture halls, consider requesting a CatchBox throwable microphone that can be tossed to participating students.
- When it is time to end group work and focus on the instructor, consider utilizing a phrase - such as "eyes on me," "let's come back together" - that can serve as a signal to stop talking.
- In Active Learning Classrooms which have no obvious front of the room, move around the room to different points so that all students are able to see you.
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.
- Contact the 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.
Adding activities to a class can make it harder to cover every point covered in a lecture.
Some faculty find that spending more time on group work requires that they cover less topics. Instead, they focus on covering fewer topics in more depth, and find this to be a worthwhile trade off. However, you can also devote more class time to active learning by utilizing means of content delivery that occur out of class, such as requiring reading or watching a pre-recorded lecture.
At the same time, some instructors find that active learning actually helps them cover more content. The increase in student feedback enables these instructors to move more quickly through topics that are easily understood.
Regardless of the effect on your class, you can expect that the use of active learning will require you to adjust both the breadth and depth of content covered in the classroom.
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.
- 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.
- Walk behind students to discourage them from inappropriate use of laptops and phones.
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.
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.
- While active learning can reduce the amount of control an instructor has, it can also result in richer discussions. Many instructors find that students in an active learning environment ask much more insightful questions because students ask and answer more obvious questions within the groups. While this requires the instructors to be prepared for more challenging questions, it also advances the class discussion.
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.
- 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.
- Explain to your students that due to the design of the room, there will be times when you will have your back towards them. Encourage them to turn or even move their seats if they need to. Explain that the room is designed that way to aid the group work they will be doing.
- Make an effort to stand in different locations throughout the room so that students get equal face time. Direct students to the current area of interest, such as a monitor, a board, or yourself and telegraph when the focal point will change.
- 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.
- Use Teaching Assistants or Learning Assistants to distribute help throughout the room.
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.
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.