Workshop: Active learning leads to critical thinkers

Students taking Professor Daniel Klionsky's introductory biology class should not expect to sit passively jotting lecture notes.

They will get daily quizzes to ensure they keep up with the reading. They will interact with other students to solve problems related to the material, not just memorize facts.

"This is much more fun than listening to lectures" for the entire class, Klionsky says. In other words, these students will participate in active learning.

Klionsky led active learning workshops with nearly 25 college science teachers Aug. 10-14 in the Undergraduate Science Building.

Lecturing and note-taking — the standard method used by most instructors — is passive learning and is relatively ineffective for students, Klionsky says. Active learning — as the name implies — requires the students to be actively involved in the learning process and can be much more effective in understanding the material.

Nationwide, more higher education professors and instructors are implementing hands-on teaching, changing how students have learned in kindergarten through 12th grade. Brian Feige, a biology professor at Mott Community College in Flint, attended the workshop and says he likes seeing students become critical thinkers.

"It's meaningless to have students regurgitate material without understanding it," he says.

This teaching method, however, is not without obstacles from administrators, faculty and students — the latter sometimes unwilling to prepare daily for class.

Another workshop participant, Susan Dentel, an instructor who teaches anatomy and other science courses at Washtenaw Community College, says some faculty members resist changing their traditional teaching style because it might involve extra work.

"We need to approach education in a different way," says Dentel, who believes she recently was hired full-time because she taught an active learning component.

Klionsky also runs a yearlong equivalent to the residential workshop called the "Life Sciences Learning Community" that is part of his $1.5 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Undergraduate Science Education Program grant.

The LSLC introduces junior faculty, post-docs and graduate students to active learning. They meet five times in the summer and once each month throughout the academic year, Klionsky says. Participants discuss various aspects of active learning, and practical considerations such as designing a syllabus and developing integrated courses that focus on learning goals, specific activities and methods of assessment.