Professor, Designer, Husband, Father, Gamer, Bagpiper

I was reading my email over my morning coffee, and clicked through to a Chronicle of High Ed[1] article titled Your Students Learn by Doing, Not by Listening with a faint sense of hope and dread. You see, I'm one of those teachers that fully understands the value of active learning but finds it extremely difficult to implement in practice.

We have to go beyond the idea that the perfect presentation of the relevant facts will be enough to help the majority of our students learn. Such pedagogy (whether or not we call it lecturing) will work for some students. But for most students, we need to shift our focus from what it is we say to what it is they do.

Every article on active learning has a quote like this in them[2], and I'm starting to dread seeing them. "Yes, I get it!" I want to yell. But "how?"

When I experience other teachers' examples of active learning, they usually seem straightfoward. They've been talking about topic A, so here's a little exercise to put the material related to A into practice, or a small multiple choice question to see what the students think about some part of the topic, perhaps followed by some discussion with a person nearby. It's easy to see why this works.

The problem I have is actually coming up with those activities and questions. When the rubber hits the road and I'm confronted by last years notes for a few lectures on a topic, I find myself going through them thinking "No, I can't ask that, it's too obvious" or "How do I come up with an exercise related to this that the students could do in a short time?". I sometimes wonder if it's the advanced technical nature of the topic (the last class I taught was an upper year 3D graphics class), but I know that's a cop-out ... lots of people teach advanced topics using these techniques.

In the end, I assume it's like the topic itself: we learn to create active learning situations by creating active learning situations, not by having people tell us the value of active learning[3]. The hard part is starting.

I managed to add some active learning activities to my 3D graphics a few years ago, but as the semester rolled on and time got tighter, it became harder and harder. Perhaps the next time it will be easier?

As I write the paragraph above, I realize that there is hope for those of us who are "stuck with starting". Like the conversation about blogging I had with Ken Perlin at CHI, that led to me finally commiting to a daily blogging goal, as I write about how hard I find it to add active learning to lectures, I am forced to admit that the solution is to "just do it" and trust that "insight will come with time."[4]

In the end, hopefully trying to facilitate active learning will be the best way to learn to do active learning.

(header image from

  1. I've subscribed to the Chronicle for years; even though I've been on leave from Georgia Tech for more than 2 years, I still find myself reading an article or two each day. For anyone in, or interested in, higher education, I recommend subscribe! ↩︎

  2. I'm beginning to wonder if there's an exercise in courses on learning active learning methods that has the class come up with these statements. ↩︎

  3. Ok, I'm sorry, I know: this meta-thought is groan-worthy, especially when I poked fun at such statements above. But it's true. ↩︎

  4. Ironically, this blog post has also driven home to me the value of blogging. I initially envisioned this post as a short it's-ok-if-you-find-active-learning-hard-to-implement, you're-not-alone post. But the act of writing out my thoughts provided me with some clarity. Interesting. ↩︎

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