Perceived Barriers to Active Learning Strategies

     Activity based learning has long been promoted by experienced educators as a powerful teaching strategy for ensuring the best results. Regardless of so-called learning styles, many years of research, especially relating to Piaget’s findings, have shown that cognitive development in both children and adults takes place through a synthesis of sensorial experience and motricity.

     A hands-on approach, while not essential to every learning situation, adds a powerful dimension to the total learning process, and most teachers ensure that that every lesson includes some sort of relevant student activity. Some educators at the college and university level, however, argue that while this may be fine for young children and even for high school students, it is totally impractical at the tertiary level for a number of obvious reasons.

     First of all, college professors and lecturers are almost always expected to cope with large classes. Some medical and law-school university classes, for example, have enrollments of 80 students and more, and educators who plan and teach such courses rely heavily on the students’ ability to absorb material and make summaries from their own notes. Furthermore, class time is limited, and if students are encouraged to engage in debate, discussion, or other types of active participation, it will become impossible to implement the full curriculum. A college professor’s load is already burdensome, and the increased preparation time needed to prepare classes that incorporate active-learning strategies would make it impossibly so.

     Apart from obvious participation through a question-answer format or a bi-lateral discussion, activity based learning usually requires a significant range of equipment, resources, and materials that can form the basis of a hands-on approach. Again, this is thought by some to be impractical in many college or university courses. With so many students involved, the preparation of classes requiring special materials or equipment for each student is too time consuming. Not only that, it is likely that such activity will lead to loss of control and unnoticed non-participation by some students. The ultimate problem will be that the required material content of the course will not be covered.

     It cannot be denied that large groups in college and university classes present a problem in logistics and organization. However, all of the difficulties can be overcome with thoughtful planning. Though it is true that tertiary level students can contend with a lecture format better than younger students, participation and active involvement are still needed to ensure a full comprehensive understanding of the program content. The onus is upon tertiary level educators to find ways and means of implementing success-oriented classes, and they can do so by being aware of current research on successful teaching strategies.

     Activity-based learning is such a well established approach to teaching that no educator should hesitate to implement it whenever possible. It can be difficult to start using new methods, but by starting with a few simple, low-risk strategies and well-planned exercises based on subject matter, teachers at all levels can improve the outcome of their lessons.