Active Learning in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Active Learning: Aims and Implications

The Writing Program's Faculty Resource pages aim to:

  • Outline a pedagogy that coheres the various methods commonly used in Dartmouth's writing classrooms;
  • Offer strategies to make these methods even more effective;
  • Introduce our methods and philosophies to instructors who are new to the program.

Dartmouth's writing instructors employ an array of effective instructional methods as they teach writing. Many of these methods are drawn from the pedagogy known as Active Learning (sometimes referred to as "engaged learning," or "student-centered learning"). Active Learning pedagogy seeks to overhaul the model of education in which students impassively receive knowledge from their instructors. In Active Learning classrooms, students are challenged to forego passivity in favor of contribution and participation. Responsibility for learning changes hands as instructors and students collaborate to teach and learn from one another

Active Learning classrooms are distinguished by three principles:

  1. Active Learning is student-driven. In the Active Learning classroom, students might be asked to lead discussion, to design their own writing assignments, to instruct their peers, and to collaborate with their instructor to determine course aims and assess course work.
  2. Active Learning teaches students how to learn in collaboration with their peers, creating a community that facilitates learning. This community, properly designed, helps students to understand the expectations and conventions of the community of scholars that they are about to join.
  3. Active Learning asks instructors to transfer to students some portion of the authority that has traditionally been theirs. Students, in turn, take increased responsibility for their writing educations. Transferring authority requires instructors to shift their focus from setting standards to diagnosing problems, from giving direction to facilitating learning, from focusing exclusively on product to supporting process. In the Active Learning classroom, instructors, like students, remain actively engaged.

Effective Methods

Instructors employ active learning principles in our writing classrooms in a number of ways.

Let students teach one another. One of the best ways to master something is to teach it. Students become better writers when you put teaching responsibilities into their hands. Placing your students into peer editing groups in which they diagnose and respond to problems in their classmates' papers not only sharpens their critical skills but also shows them how to talk and think about writing. Students eventually internalize these discussions and draw on them as they write. For a fuller discussion of the benefits and the methods of peer instruction, see Collaborative Learning. For specific advice regarding sharpening students' peer editing skills, see Diagnosing and Responding.

Make student writing a text in the class. Instructors who embrace the student-centered principles of Active Learning understand how important it is to conduct Writing Workshops, in which student papers are read and discussed in class. Making student writing a text in the class signals to students not only that you take their writing seriously, but also that they are now part of the ongoing conversation of scholarship. Making student writing a text in the class also allows you to teach students to diagnose and respond to problems that come up in their writing. For a fuller discussion regarding why and how to make student writing a text in the class, see Conducting Writing Workshops.

Expect students to direct discussion; invite them to teach a class. Writing instructors conduct their classes via discussion rather than lectures. But even in discussion classes, professors exert authority. Too often in discussion students are more concerned with performing to please the professor than they are with genuinely pursuing a line of inquiry. Active Learning instructors expect students to determine the focus of the discussion. Some invite students to co-facilitate discussions. Others assign presentations. In all cases instructors ask students NOT to position their classmates as passive listeners. Like the instructor, student facilitators are expected to teach using Active Learning methods.

Ask students to design their own writing assignments. Developing elaborate, well-articulated prompts has certain pedagogical advantages. But letting students discover their own questions and letting them design their own writing prompts not only gives them the power to approach assignments on their own terms, but also gives them practice in the methods of scholarly inquiry. For more information, see Syllabus and Assignment Design.

Involve students in assessment. Those of us who routinely practice Active Learning principles understand that the act of grading can undo the transfer of power that we've been working so hard to achieve. One way of avoiding this "undo" is to involve students in the assessment process. Devote a class to discussing the qualities of good writing; collaborate with the students to define standards or to design a rubric for grading; invite the students to grade an assignment with you, and let those grades have weight equal to yours. (The last strategy works particularly well when grading class presentations, when effectively engaging the audience is a concern.) 

Adopt a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, attitude toward grammar and style. Presenting grammar and style as a series of rules insures that students will remain in the position of "apprentice" writers. Describing grammar in terms of reader expectations and discourse conventions helps students to figure out how to write for an academic audience. Students are thereby positioned as fully responsible participators in the academic conversation. For fuller discussions, see Addressing Grammar.

Provide students with opportunities to fail and to revise. Active Learning theorist Ken Bain argues in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do, that real teaching requires three steps: 1) Show your students that their models fail/are inadequate; 2) Make them care enough to find new models; 3) Support them while they do. Once you've convinced students their high-school models for thinking and writing won't work, you'll need to give them plenty of time to find new models. This means that you'll have to give them time to draft and redraft their papers, so that they can see where their work is coming up short and will have the time (and the desire) to revise it.

Common Concerns

Many instructors resist adopting Active Learning methods. They are concerned that these methods require considerable amounts of time. They worry about letting go of their control over the classroom. They are concerned that students won't understand these methods, will find them frustrating, and will express this frustration on course evaluations. They are also hesitant to use methods in class that they haven't used before. If these methods fail, students will leave their writing classes without the requisite skills.

We address these concerns in turn.

Time. Active Learning does take time: class time, conference time, and preparation time. But it's not as time-intensive as many instructors think. We offer the following reassurances:

  • Class time: Not all Active Learning instruction needs to happen in class. One of the benefits of adopting this model is that you are asking students to teach one another. You can therefore ask students to meet outside of class to talk about their papers; you can also ask them to conduct peer critique on the Canvas discussion board. You'll want to oversee peer instruction by monitoring Canvas postings or by asking students to summarize, in writing, the peer work they do outside of class. Either way, class time needn't be overwhelmed by Active Learning exercises.
  • Conference time: One advantage of the Active Learning classroom is that collaborative learning techniques can be extended to the conference dynamic. If you've divided your students into editing groups, confer with students in groups rather than individually. This method is not only time-efficient, it's also effective. Too often the one-one-one conference turns into a fix-it session, with students seeking specific instruction about how to make a paper work. In group conferences, students engage in debates about writing. Reading three or four papers rather than one encourages students to determine more generally what works (and what doesn't). They'll take with them a better sense of the principles (rather than simply the particulars) of good writing.
  • Preparation: The shift to Active Learning is more qualitative than quantitative. That is, Active Learning requires you to position yourself differently vis a vis your class and your teaching. In this way, Active Learning requires not more work, but different work. If students are indeed sharing the work of teaching, preparation time can be reduced. The hours spent crafting an assignment or determining discussion questions are eliminated if students are entrusted to do these things for themselves.

Control. Instructors who are hesitant to give up control don't trust that first-year students are ready to take charge of their own educations. First-year students are newcomers to the academy. How can they decode its conventions or its expectations? How can they be expected to take charge of their learning? We respond by saying that students in Active Learning classrooms can puzzle out the conventions together. Rather than telling them what is expected of them and then turning them loose to write, you'll be presenting them with models of academic writing (student and scholarly) and then working with them to determine conventions. The latter methodology is far more likely to "stick."

Evaluations. Some instructors worry that students will not understand the rationale for active learning, and that these "strange" methods might be remarked upon in evaluations. Students do sometimes find Active Learning methods frustrating. For instance, students, who are "loner learners" don't like to work in groups. Others who are result-oriented don't see the point in spending time talking about process. We've found, however, that resistant students can be brought on board by making the rationale for Active Learning clear. When your methods are transparent, students (in particular first-year students) will generally be willing to give them a chance. They'll also be more likely to evaluate your success in meeting your goals if you've clearly stated them.

Failure. Instructors are justifiably concerned that a new, unfamiliar teaching method might fail. Indeed, not every method or exercise you employ will succeed. But both you and your students can learn from these failures. If an assignment or exercise doesn't work, talk with your students. Get them to brainstorm reasons for why the method isn't succeeding. This will not only help you to make adjustments, it will require your students to reflect upon teaching and learning methods. It will also prove to your students that you care what they think.

Using Technology to Support Active Learning

Canvas is an excellent tool to support Active Learning goals in the writing classroom. Discussion boards can be used to facilitate peer commentary; wikis can be used for collaborative writing and research assignments. Best of all, Canvas is flexible enough that it can be adapted to meet almost any of your teaching goals.