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Connecting the Dots: Active Learning Techniques that Deepen Classroom Learning

Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning
A National Symposium
November 16-17, 2018
Stetson University
Miami, Florida

April D. Lundy, Clark Atlanta University
Rosalee Martin, Huston-Tillotson University
Alice E. Stephens, Clark Atlanta University
Ashley L. Torrence, Clark Atlanta University


When faculty use methods of learning where students are actively, collaboratively and/or experientially involved in the learning process they are engaging their students in active learning (Brame, 2016). These students are doing something, not just passively listening.  And in the process of doing—be it demonstrating a process, applying a concept to a real-world situation, or practicing a component skill—learning is taking place as students do things and think about the things they are doing. Presented here are a number of innovative active learning teaching techniques, including integrating prior knowledge with new knowledge; giving students a realistic practical sense of the subject matter learned in the classroom; using deliberate practice that focuses on learning from errors; and thinking deeply and creatively about new information in order to make new associations.

Mastering Course Content by Bridging the Knowledge Gap Between Classes  

Often students do not take the content they learn in one class into another class.  It is not unusual for a student to get a B or above in an English class, but write poorly in content classes. As a result, English teachers are held accountable and not the student who did not internalize English grammar, and other English content.

How can a content teacher assist with improving students’ willingness and ability to learn more deeply the English language within the subject of a non-English class?

This was the question posed by Dr. Martin, a sociology professor, who regularly faced students who possessed poor written and oral communication skills. Noun/verb agreement was often a problem, along with the logical flow of thought. How to help these students connect the dots and effectively use what they had learned in English in their sociology classes became a critical question in light of the fact that sociology classes were designated by the Core Curriculum Committee of the institution as writing intensive classes. The answer was critical to student success in all courses.

Two approaches that bridged the gap between writing well and mastering content were an English Day Class Activity and a Grammar and Writing Checklist. English Day Class Activity took place after the first written assignment, with the professor selecting both poor examples and excellent examples of how students answered questions. The examples of poor answers were presented to the class, while their input on the meaning of content and ways to improve grammar was solicited. Afterwards, the samples of excellent answers were shared. Through this activity, students came to understand: that classmates may have difficulty understanding content as well as the teacher; that they can identify common grammatical errors; and that samples of excellent writing provide good examples of what the teacher expects.

Prior to turning in each assignment, students reviewed the Writing Checklist, which contains all areas on which they are graded.  It includes format, content, grammatical expectations, etc.  This checklist holds students accountable for quality work prior to turning it in. These two intentional efforts helped students connect the dots from their English class to sociology content courses.

The Magic of Collaborative Synergy in Active and Experiential Learning Approaches

There is an unlikely parallel between the process of moving image production and the teaching and learning process. As educators and filmmakers, we have discovered an unexplainable magic, which occurs both through the collaborative synergy of the production process and when students are engaged with course content, the instructor, and one another in the classroom. The convergence of these processes has resulted in strategic active and experiential learning approaches in our media courses that deepen learning.

Active and experiential learning approaches characterize and are instrumental in the teaching paradigm and mirror the film/media production process. The university experience is often fragmented, with courses, service opportunities, and extracurricular activities seemingly unconnected to one another. Providing students with the means to integrate their learning is beneficial to their undergraduate careers, as well as their professional careers. Eportfolios and production projects allow students to strategically and actively engage in opportunities to learn through doing and reflecting on those activities. This empowers them to apply experiences, interdisciplinary course work, theoretical knowledge, and creativity to practical problems and the creation of media content. These aspects of active and integrative learning occur when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis.

Throughout the experiential learning process, the instructor encourages engagement by asking students questions, and inviting them to investigate, experiment, solve problems, assume responsibility, and to be curious and creative. Additionally, participation in production workshops, seminars, media conferences, and markets provide students—especially students of color—exposure to successful role models that look like them with whom they can identify.

End-of-Semester Success Achieved by Sustained/Spaced Practice

To be successful in an introductory media production class, students have to not only apply skills they learned in the pre-requisite course, but also to apply component skills acquired during the semester. This can be frustrating to students whose final production projects must represent the use of component skills.  Since doing something is different from thinking that you know how to do it, the instructor introduced sustained, spaced practice of component skills in this active learning environment.

Students were immersed in a hands-on production process that activated their imagination, engaged their writing, editing, and visual storytelling skills, and fostered their capacity for collaboration. Focus on classroom activities was enhanced when each and every student became aware and completely involved in sustained spaced practice.  Spaced deliberate practice exposes errors, and the revision process strengthens skills. Sustained practice of component skills created a flow that engaged students in a learning process that in most cases lead to success in the course.

The ABC’s of Using Strategic Teaching to Maintain the Attention of Generation Z

Campaigns—regardless of size, intent, or association—all share the same strategic objective of outreach.  Active learning is one of the most successful tools that can be used to help students understand and learn to develop effective outreach strategies.

Active learning requires colleges and universities to extend the citadels of knowledge beyond their classroom walls.  Educators have an obligation to help ensure what students learn in class can be appropriately implemented in real life contexts outside of class.

In the fall of 2017, at the same time a Campaign Communication class was introducing students to the fundamental guidelines for establishing a grassroots campaign, media coverage was exposing students to a call for action in response to the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey. After careful consideration, students decided to establish a campus campaign utilizing the guidelines learned in class. The campaign was known as “Hurricane Harvey’s Angels” and effectively incorporated the following guidelines for establishing a grassroots campaign:

  • Selecting two academically at-risk elementary schools in Houston with majority African-American and Hispanic populations
  • Pursuing as a primary objective the acquisition and distribution of resources most needed at both schools
  • Choosing college students from the three Atlanta University Center institutions (Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College) as the main audience for campaign messages
  • Using social media (specifically Instagram) as the most effective platform for campaign communication
  • Establishing participation value by publicly acknowledging donations through social media shout-outs and treats

This project was incredibly successful in teaching students both the process of recognizing an existing need and the development of a grassroots campaign to address it.  Classroom lectures, readings, and in-class discussion remain valuable teaching tools for students. This project, however, demonstrates that the benefits of active and engaged learning should be equally pursued.


Approaches that promote active learning require higher-order thinking and deepen learning. The approaches presented here focus on developing students’ skills and require that students do something—read, discuss, or write, among other activities. The effective active learning strategies we employed in our classrooms improved our students’ learning and helped them achieve long lasting academic success.




Brame, C., (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/active-learning/