Jenny Peterson in Political Science uses active learning to enrich student engagement with course material


jenny peterson

Show them simple ways in which they can directly participate and have a say in their learning and create knowledge for others.

–Jenny Peterson, Instructor, Political Science

Back Story

Jenny Peterson is an instructor in the Department of Political Science who also teaches at UBC’s Vantage College. She has been exploring ways to integrate active learning into her courses, such as in her introductory class POLI 100: Introduction to Political Science and POLI 220: Introduction to Comparative Politics.

What motivated you to introduce active learning in the courses you teach? What forms of active learning approaches did you use?

I started by looking for strategies to teach my classes in different ways – I wanted to find ways to break out of the traditional lecture format and allow students to learn through doing. When I came across the concept of active learning, I was able draw from research that had been conducted on the method and get inspiration from the techniques. At one point my colleague said something which stood out to me, which was that students should be creating knowledge and not just consuming it; they should be interacting and having conversations with us and with each other, instead of just being spoken to. I think that really got me to think about the purpose of my active learning. I want students to see that they can create knowledge and that doing so is powerful.

The thing about active learning pedagogies, however, is that if you do the same thing too many times, it starts to lose its impact. So my goal overall is that I want students to remember the course content and retain what they learn. To achieve this, I organize lots of different activities in class, such as having a couple of gallery walks, mini simulations, and formal in-class debates per semester and mixing them up in a way that is not repetitive. Gallery walks involve groups of students working with a specific topic, problem or set of data and coming up with a solution for it, and then presenting their findings by making posters and putting them up on the wall in the classroom. During the actual walk, the classroom essentially gets transformed into a museum or gallery: everyone walks around and looks at the work that their peers had completed, and see the answers that they had come up with from different perspectives.

For example, in the introductory political science class, each group was assigned to make a poster for different theories such as liberalism, realism, constructivism, and post-modernism. The students were then given data or a quotation that they had to match to one of the theories, and during the gallery walk they would all see how different pieces of data and quotations fit together under each theory. But actually, the group work and the walking is maybe 50% of the activity – the real learning comes from the debriefing afterwards, where I get the students to comment and reflect on the images and information that they had seen. Doing this, I get to show them simple ways in which they can directly participate and have a say in their learning and create knowledge for others – and this is why I implement active learning.

In what ways has active learning changed the course?

I feel that it makes students more responsible for their learning and gives them a stronger sense of ownership to the material and learning process. There is a greater sense of sharing the responsibility for progress between all of us in the room. It also forces students to think about what is required to really ‘learn’ about a topic—so for example, all of the activities end with a debrief, which is really important in getting the students to reflect not just on the information we got to cover during the debate, but also what further research they need to do if they were to write an essay about the topic we covered. This essentially encourages them to not simply think about their own opinions on the discussion, but also think about the supporting information they need if they want to establish a solid argument or position on the matter. It gets them started on thinking about research questions and gathering data. This means that the classroom is no longer just a space where they are given information. The classroom becomes a space where they really have to think through the whole process of knowledge production from start to finish—from gathering the facts we already have, developing hypotheses based on this information, drawing conclusion and also questioning the validity of data, methods and conclusions.

What has been the result?

I’ve found that the different types of activities speak to different students’ strengths, because some people are excellent debaters and learn as they participate verbally, while others enjoy learning visually and gain a lot from the gallery walks. Many students take pictures during the walk, and from that they are able to obtain images and cohesive summaries of the material, as opposed to simply reading text and taking notes. The gallery walks also allow them to more actively absorb and participate in the learning; instead of looking at PowerPoint slides created by the lecturer, the students themselves create the visual aspects and prepare the presentation of their information. It definitely gets them moving and interacting in a way that’s not always possible in a regular classroom setting, and in that sense it’s also difficult to organize with a larger class. I once tried it with a class of 120, and it didn’t work so well – I would say 90 is the maximum, but ideally a class of 60 to 65 would work best.

What were some of the challenges you’ve faced and is there anything about your approach you would improve or change?

At the moment, most of active learning, including debriefs, takes place during class usually at the end of class. But I think if I were teaching a smaller, maybe third or fourth year class, I could shift some of this stage online so that the discussion can continue and perhaps reach more in-depth levels of analysis when students have the time to think about their responses. But I don’t know how well that would work for first year classes. That’s probably the main limitation of the gallery walk (and other activities) in a first year class – everything has to happen in-class as students themselves aren’t necessarily intellectually ready to engage in the analytical or summative debriefing on their own. I think in the future, debriefing could happen entirely in a tutorial section. In fact, this is feedback I’ve gotten directly from students in focus groups I’ve run on active learning.

Additionally, as part of a research project I’ve been conducting, I’ve been looking at in terms of active learning in large classes, I’ve found that one of the main barriers to success is that many of the activities rely on every student putting in their share of work and effort in collaborating with their peers. The problem with larger classes is that there is less accountability and/or relationships with their peers, and a greater chance for “free riders” to not actually contribute anything, but gain immensely from their peers who are putting in the work. In comparison, my Vantage College classes are much smaller and I’m able to remain fully aware of what’s going on with each group. I also have teaching assistants in the classroom with me who can help with keeping an eye out and guiding students through the steps of the project. And again, one of my big research questions would be how to deal with the “free-rider” problem that emerges from group projects done in larger class sizes.

I have also had some of the feedback from my students who are wanting more of a balance between the lecturing and the active learning. I’ll need to take that into consideration and try to find a more optimal balance between traditional lecturing and active learning.

Were there any surprises about how students responded to your approach?

I was surprised at the difference in the noticeably higher level of enthusiasm and appreciation of more ‘visual’ techniques from my International students within Vantage College. These techniques allow for a different avenue into teaching students for whom the sometimes text-heavy readings and verbal communication approaches are more challenging – for students who are still developing advanced language skills. Visually based active learning approaches can reinforce the readings and lectures. Having visual cues that they can link to theories and concepts can be quite helpful, and I’ve received positive feedback from them on that aspect. On the other hand, students who are more detail-oriented and want to learn extensively through textual material don’t warm up to this style of learning as quickly.

Also, this past term I had my students write reflections based on four of the activities they did during class about how effective those activities were in influencing their understanding of politics. After reading through some of the responses, I’ve seen some commonalities such as how some of them initially felt resistant against the fact that they were expected to debate a topic from a political standpoint that they personally didn’t agree with, but then through the activity they were surprised to find that they could adapt quite easily to their assigned roles and come out of it with a more balanced and enhanced perception of the whole matter. I suppose this didn’t surprise me, but these reflections showed me that exercises were having important learning outcomes beyond just the specific aims of the activity.

It was also quite striking to see that many of the students didn’t necessarily talk about their understanding of the course content following an activity, but instead wrote about how the activities changed their personal perceptions on some of the topics we addressed or in some cases even changed their understandings of big epistemic questions. So I suppose that a discovery I’ve made from this is the way active learning allows students to feel the course content as more of an experience – sometimes even on a personal level or in terms of their growing sense of their emerging identities as scholars.

Do you have any advice for instructors hoping to implement active learning in their course?

The overall advice I would have is to trust the students – I think sometimes we worry about student resistance to new ideas or new styles of teaching, and it’s hard at first to break free from the traditional lecture format. But I think we should have more confidence that students will be excited to try something different in their classes. However, because it can seem different to students, be clear with them in terms of what they will gain from the activity. Make it very clear to the students what the expected learning outcomes are for each new activity. I always hand out a worksheet with my active learning exercises, and I ensure to outline what the goals of the activity are. This way, you’re providing more stable ground and a feeling of knowing what’s to come for the students instead of simply throwing them into something they’re not used to. It’s important for students to know what is expected of them, particularly if active learning is going to be part of their assessments.

Also, don’t feel like you have to do something ‘cool and crazy’ every lecture, because students also need a break from active learning! If they constantly have to produce knowledge, and always have to think critically and outside the box for every element of the course, it can get incredibly exhausting for them. They need some downtime between each activity to process what they’ve learned and gained out of it, and that’s why the debriefings after all of my activities and debates are so important. The debrief portion still kind of requires some interactivity and critical thinking from the students, but it also allows them to sit back, think, and work towards a conclusion together with their peers and the instructor. It really seems to help tie things together for the students – the learning activities that hadn’t gone so well in the past were the ones where I hadn’t allocated enough time for debriefing afterwards!