INTRODUCTION: As an instructional designer, I work with faculty members who want to improve their teaching. Being one step removed from the classroom has some advantages: If I can convince faculty to try new and more effective teaching strategies, I can indirectly reach thousands of students, many more than if I were still teaching myself. However, this indirect connection to the students can also be frustrating. Because I can’t teach others’ students, I have to trust that once the faculty members leave my workshops, the strategies I’ve modeled and introduced will improve student learning.

After attending the On Course I Workshop, I wondered how a faculty development position could lend itself to furthering the On Course philosophies. The first approach was obvious: introduce and model On Course strategies to faculty, and help them incorporate these techniques into their classrooms. The second approach needed to simmer a little longer on the back burner of my brain. In my dealings with faculty, I’ve noticed that some faculty members exhibit the same self-limiting behaviors as their students–behaviors that undermine their teaching effectiveness. For example, often instructors blame students, the high school system, and administrators for poorly prepared and consequently poor performing students. They cling to familiar ways of teaching simply because “that’s how I was taught” and “I have too much content to cover.” They complain about teaching difficulties rather than taking steps to improve it. Just as these beliefs and behaviors limit students’ potential, so also do they prevent *faculty* from becoming the most effective instructors they can be.

My approach to transferring the On Course principles, therefore, is threefold:

  • to teach strategies that faculty can use with their students to help them be more successful in college
  • to model these strategies in my workshops so that faculty can see them in action
  • to use the strategies to empower faculty to take greater responsibility for their teaching effectiveness

The first opportunity I had to integrate On Course principles with my own work was Active Learning Week: a week-long workshops series in mid-July that I had been planning for several months. The primary objectives of the series were to introduce faculty to the importance of Active Learning, model and discuss a variety of Active Learning strategies, and to tackle the dilemma of “covering content” versus taking the time to let students grapple with material.

This third objective tapped into one of the greatest anxieties that instructors have about using active learning strategies. Many faculty worry that Active Learning techniques reduce the amount of time they have to “get through” content. This anxiety points to bigger issues (students can’t do it on their own; I don’t have time to use these techniques; this is how I was taught, etc) that underscored my three collateral learning objectives. As a result of this workshop, I wanted faculty to…

  • commit to struggle with the issue of enhancing learning versus covering content (not solve it every time)
  • commit to a new teaching technique(s) that might rejuvenate their outlook on the profession
  • get them to take more responsibility for their teaching and student learning

With this context laid, I would like to describe the first of three activities I facilitated during this week to reach both my primary and collateral objectives.

TITLE: The “A-ha” Moment: A Guided Journal Exercise

PURPOSE: I knew that the first activity I planned for Active Learning Week was pivotal. To start the week with a lecture defining active learning and describing its benefits would have undermined the tone I wanted for the week. I wanted the term “Active Learning” to hit an emotional chord with my participants from the beginning, so that for the rest of the week faculty would see these strategies not as “edu-babble” but as methods that they could appreciate as learners and teachers.

SUPPLIES/SET UP: A blank sheet of paper for each participant

DIRECTIONS: I divided the participants into two large groups. I told them that they would be free-writing for about 5-7 minutes.

Group 1 responded to the following prompt: Think of a time you learned something new–you “got it” and were excited. What happened to help you get it? What was the learning experience like? How did it feel?

Group 2 responded to a similar prompt: Think of a time you were teaching and got excited about your students’ learning. What happened to help your students get it? What was the learning experience like? How did it feel?

After they had written their entries, I paired participants from Group 1 with those from Group 2. I asked them to share these experiences with their partner, and then identify what the learning experiences had in common. I then called on a few pairs to share their common experiences with the whole group. The entire process took about 20 minutes.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES: In order to hit that emotional chord with my participants, I wanted to highlight the rush one feels when they have an “a-ha” moment, or when their students do. This rush, I believe, is what rejuvenates us as learners and teachers.

By drawing on a positive learning experience, either as a teacher or a learner, participants could see how the learner’s involvement in the process facilitated this “a-ha!” moment. After comparing their journal entries with their partners, participants noted these things in common:

  • We both had experiences where the student figured it out for him/herself.
  • In both cases, the learner was empowered.
  • The learner used resources available to get the information.
  • It involved applying the information more than hearing about it.

After processing this experience, participants were in a much better place to do three things that closed this introductory session and set the stage for the rest of the week:

  • briefly explore the “textbook” definitions of active learning
  • commit to struggle to create “a-ha” moments for their students (sometimes at the expense of content coverage)
  • evaluate the strategies they would be experiencing throughout the week with respect to their ability to create these “a-ha” moments.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM ACTIVE LEARNING WEEK: Planning a week’s worth of faculty development activities is like preparing a mini-curriculum, and the skills that worked for me when I was a teacher also helped me design and deliver this program: meticulous planning, a relaxed presentation style, and an appreciation for the work the “students” are doing. I was amazed that 25 faculty members, including those underpaid and under-appreciated folks we call adjunct faculty, would voluntarily spend five afternoons in the summer to dive deep and explore their teaching. More faculty attended this summer workshop series than all my fall workshop offerings combined, giving me a better picture of when faculty are most willing to take advantage of professional development opportunities.

I also learned how much participants like to hear what their colleagues are doing in the classroom. A session that got the most positive feedback was called “Stories from the Trenches,” when two full-time faculty members shared how they converted a lesson from a traditional “talk and chalk” approach to a more learner-centered approach. Hearing faculty describe the benefits and the challenges to their new approach made quite an impact on the participants.

Of course, I didn’t make Active Learning converts out of every participant. On my final evaluations, there were a few comments about this being nothing more than “games” done at the expense of “real teaching” (because, of course, learning can’t be fun!). Some participants found it difficult to distance themselves from the role of “student/observer” in the week’s activities to clearly evaluate the active learning strategies I was modeling. (One participant stayed twenty minutes after a session had ended arguing about his dissatisfaction with how a simulation activity ended for his group. He could at that moment only process the result; he could not step back from the activity to look at it as a potential teaching tool.) Many participants wished they had more time in the week to explore these strategies in greater depth, which I will consider when repeating this event. I will also pare down the number of articles I provide in the binder; it was overwhelming for some participants. On the whole, however, I was very pleased with this effort and look forward to Active Learning Week (the sequel) next summer.


Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development, 1991.

Meyers, Chet and Thomas B. Jones. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993.

Vella, Jane. Taking Learning to Task: Creative Strategies for Teaching Adults. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000.

“Active Learning: Getting Students to Work and Think in the Classroom,” Speaking of Teaching: Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching Volume 5, Number 1 Fall 1993. Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University.

Faust, J.L., and Paulson, D.R. (1998). “Active Learning in the College Classroom.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 9 (2), 3-24.


Fostering Classroom Discussions


Lee, Christing, (1997) Cooperative Learning in the Thinking Classroom: Research and Theoretical Perspectives. Paper presented at the International Conference on Thinking, Singapore. EDRS document: ED 408 570

Jones, L.G. (1997). Sample Cooperative Learning Strategies. A Guide to Using the Extended Class Period. Baltimore: Crespar, Johns Hopkins University.

Cooperative Learning: The “Jigsaw” Approach


University of Delaware’s extensive PBL site

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science

–Erin Hagar, Instructional Designer, Johns Hopkins University, MD

Forum Image OptionPromoting Active Learning to Faculty Forum