For generations, the gold standard of higher ed instruction was something we now pejoratively refer to as the ‘sage on stage.’ In this lecture-based model, a professor stood in front of a class and imparted knowledge upon their passive listeners. Interactive learning is an innovative, practical alternative to this traditional style—and one that’s only growing more popular.

With interactive learning, educators use captivating lecture tactics to involve students. Successful interactive learning means that a professor engages students both inside and outside of class. When interactive teaching models are adopted, professors set the stage for increased participation and collaboration. Read on to discover what makes interactive learning so effective, especially in remote courses—and some tactics you can employ in your class at any time.

Is interactive learning more effective than traditional learning?

When students sit in a lecture hall listening to a professor talk for upwards of an hour, they are engaging in passive learning. They are hearing what the professor is saying. They might even be taking notes. But they are likely not engaged in critical thinking or reflection. When merely listening to a lecture, students absorb less—especially as the class progresses.

In allowing for open discussions and setting engagement as a classroom goal, professors give students the opportunity to think about their learning and how it applies to the real world. Through this process, they become well-rounded learners. They are absorbing the information, but are also thinking about what they are learning. Even better is when they’re able to discuss it with others.

There are additional benefits, as well: Interactive teaching isn’t just more effective than traditional learning, it’s also more inclusive. Students who require accommodations to learn successfully may struggle in staid lecture environments. Giving students the opportunity to work with each other on difficult concepts can alleviate some of those struggles.

The benefits of interactive learning

A meaningful advantage of interactive learning is that it maintains student attention. Rather than losing their concentration as the lecture progresses, they are engaged in what the professor is saying. Students work to make connections between the new information and what they have previously learned. By discussing course concepts with their peers, they sharpen their ability to see different perspectives.

When students participate in interactive learning activities, three essential things happen:

  1. They are engaging by listening to the professor and taking notes to absorb the information.
  2. They are applying that information hands-on by answering discussion questions.
  3. They receive a crucial social benefit when they discuss coursework with their peers to gain further insight. This is especially important in remote learning environments where students are missing faculty and peer interactions.

How to implement interactive learning in the classroom

Interactive learning is easily more engaging and effective, but it can be a challenge changing up teaching and learning styles, particularly when many are adjusting to online and blended learning. Whether you’re employing in-person activities, or using videos, dynamic lessons on the computer or interactive whiteboards, it’s important to divide up the lecture to include time for group learning and discussions. Independent reading and self-paced e-learning can also be used, which frees up opportunities for more structured interactive games and activities during class. Each professor should decide what’s best for their subject area and teaching methods, but here are a few ideas to get started.

Flipped classroom: This model gives students access to lectures at home via pre-recorded videos. Class time is then spent focusing on collaborative learning activities. Some that are easy-to-implement include:

  • Group debates
  • Real-world case studies
  • Role-playing in small groups
  • Responsive writing exercises
  • Short, peer-reviewed assessments

Think-pair-share: Consider using the think-pair-share model to promote critical thinking and reflection. Students can use this technique to answer questions on their own, to discuss with another student and then present the information to the class. This model involves independent thinking, active discussion to clarify the material and then collaborative reflection with peers.

Problem-based learning: Try giving your students a real-life problem to discuss critically. You can also provide a list of discussion prompts or let them choose their own topics of conversation. Each group will need to determine what information they already have based on the question and what new information they need to figure out in order to develop possible solutions effectively.

Holding debates on current news or subject matter–related topics allows students to speak their minds about these topics while backing up any claims they make with research. It also gives students the opportunity to learn from the perspectives of others and evaluate how they feel about a topic after they have heard differing views. Debates can be supported by the professor, who can provide insight when the students cannot resolve an issue.

Team-based learning: This model of learning promotes discussion and collaboration among students. Professors assign around five people to each group and instruct them to work together to answer problems. Students complete the reading on their own time, then come to class ready to work with their group members on any assigned questions. The professor administers a group Readiness Assurance Test (gRAT) followed by an individual Readiness Assurance Test (iRAT), both of which are used in assessing each student’s progress. In order to be transparent, allow students to appeal the answer and discuss which ones they answered incorrectly.

Project-based learning: A productive way for students to work together, particularly in remote learning environments, is to assign a longer-term group project. You can allow time during synchronous classes for the group to get together in breakout rooms to work on their projects. Then, try listening to their discussions and provide constructive feedback. Being able to hear their peers’ perspectives during a group project can ensure that the finished product is well thought out.

Peer instruction: This form of instruction helps professors gauge how well students are comprehending the material presented. Use an online polling tool to see how students answer questions throughout the lecture. Then consider giving your students time to discuss the question with peers through online discussion forums. Once they have discussed the topic, provide them with the same poll again to see how their answers have changed. A student’s interpretation of a question often varies, so polling the students’ answers after peer discussions often reveal more nuanced answers.

The lifelong impact of interactive learning

If students sit in lecture halls or online learning platforms passively listening to their professors, they are not likely absorbing as much course material as they should. Interactive learning focuses on honing critical thinking skills and encouraging productive debates and constructive conversations with peers and instructors alike.

In order to stay relevant, higher education must keep up with today’s rapid pace of change. Today’s students rely heavily on their ability to think critically about the news and what they see on social media platforms. However, professors can use the hyperconnectivity of today’s students to their learning advantage. Especially as learning shifts to online and blended models, lesson plans can be designed to involve the use of technology to incorporate various interactive learning strategies. Small group activities, debates, enhanced lectures and increased discussions with peers all help build community and feelings of connection in the classroom by giving students a stake in their own learning.

Click here to learn about Top Hat’s suite of virtual classroom tools with tools to engage students in interactive learning in online, blended and face-to-face courses.

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