Active learning – it’s a term that is frequently thrown about, but I’ve always found it difficult to articulate exactly what it means. For me, it has been one of those ‘you know it when it’s in front of you’ concepts. I’ve recently been fortunate to attend some online talks which have helped me clarify my thinking. While the perspective of each talk was different, the same key messages came through. I’d really recommend these talks – links are at the bottom of each blog post if you’d like to watch the recordings. I’ll also be posting the occasional ‘wrap up’ talking about the common messages and themes that emerge.
Talk 1 – Active Learning (ABL), Professor Alejandro (Ale) Armellini, Dean of Digital and Distributed Learning at the University of Portsmouth
The first talk I am reflecting on was by Professor Armellini, part of the Tech Thursday lecture series organised by ALT South. He presented a general consideration of what makes active learning, using his Active Blended Learning (‘ABL’) model, as well as some specific do’s and don’ts. Two of his tips really stuck with me; not to confuse ‘content delivery’ with good teaching – something easily done in my context where learners need to be familiar with an enormous amount of information. Being future lawyers, my students tend to be detail focussed and assessment-oriented. Some of them feel they’ve had good teaching if everything we do revolves around what they need to do in the assessment – with as little input from them as possible. Excellent content delivery, but not much active learning in those circumstances.
It can be hard for students with that outlook to engage with any task that is not obviously assessment related, which ties in with tip two – scaffolding needs to be designed in context, not only for content. So I tried giving my learners a contextual ‘why’ as well as a what and a how for each activity. It’s something I’ve done before when faced with a recalcitrant group, but I tried to do it with more consistency. I linked everything I asked them to do with legal practice (specifically their future roles as trainees), best practice in learning and teaching (backing up my point with studies where necessary), the module overall, or the assessment, and in some circumstances, all four. And of course, I asked them to identify the ‘why’ as well.
A couple of interesting things happened. Firstly, my practice was reinvigorated. By explicitly spelling out the drivers behind what we were doing it made me look at old material in a new way. Secondly, my students started doing the identification for themselves with no involvement from me. They told me the ‘why’ and I felt we’d managed to shift some gazes to beyond the assessment horizon.
Here’s a link to Professor Armellini’s talk – it starts 50 minutes in – the beginning is ALT South Community catch-up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkHXbTlQ-yE