Four barriers to active learning and three qualities to help teachers overcome those challenges

AUGUSTA, GA. – If you walked into a middle grades classroom and saw students wandering around the room, you might think the teacher had lost control. Turns out, that might be exactly what you want to see in an active learning classroom, which research shows is the most impactful strategy to educate middle schoolers. But teachers have a hard time implementing this approach.

Dr. Susan Edwards, Professor of Education in the Department of Teacher Education, recently published results from a research study on how teachers can implement active learning techniques in the classroom. The study looked at middle school teachers who are able to effectively implement active learning instructional strategies – in spite of the barriers and challenges that many teachers face.

The results shows that teachers who were tenacious, student-focused and experimental were best able to overcome various barriers to active learning.

“Research has consistently shown over the years that active learning is the most effective way to teach middle schoolers,” Edwards said. Active learning means being physically, socially and intellectually active in the classroom, as opposed to simply listening to a presentation from a teacher. Active learning includes working in collaboration with peers, applying critical thinking to high-level questions, and being physically active.

Examples of active learning include researching an historical topic and creating a multimedia presentation for classmates, engaging in lab experiments in science class, and playing a physical game that explores mathematics concepts.

And while it has been shown to be the most effective learning strategy for middle schoolers, Edwards said that there is a lot of pressure on teachers, in an era of testing and test-based accountability, to avoid these highly impactful methods. So she looked at the barriers that teachers face in implementing active learning techniques, and what teachers can do to overcome them.

“Middle school-aged classroom management can be challenging. Their hormone systems are regulating. They’re changing. And many people think that the best way to control them is to have them sitting in a desk, but research shows us that being engaged in physical activities actually contributes to better classroom management,” Edwards said.

Her research found that there are four areas of challenges that teachers face: systemic challenges, which include time, testing, and lack of resources; student challenges, which include behavior and range of cognitive abilities; content challenges, which include comfort with the content and making it relevant to students; and teacher challenges, which include the risks taken by changing teaching methods, dearth of ideas, and the fact that active learning simply requires greater effort.

In short, active learning instruction takes more time, requires deep content understanding, and involves more resources from schools and creativity from teachers.

That is a mountain of challenges. But conquering that summit, Edwards found, takes three basic characteristics.

First, teachers need to have perseverance and tenacity to do what it takes to make it happen.

“The teachers I found just decided it’s worth it and said, ‘I’m going to make it happen, despite the obstacles,’” Edwards said.

Second, the teachers she studied who implemented active learning in their classrooms made their instruction decisions based on how they impact their students.

“They didn’t talk about themselves. All of their comments began with ‘the students,’” Edwards said. “Their focus is really on what’s best for the students, and they’re able to put aside their personal convenience and preferences.”

And, finally, teachers successfully using active learning techniques were adventurous.

“All of these teachers were willing to experiment a little. If they got an idea of an activity from someone else, they were willing to try it out – even if they weren’t 100 percent sure it was going to work out. If they found that the activity fell apart in the middle, they adjusted their approach,” Edwards said.

One of the teachers who participated in the study ended up observing a lower elementary classroom and saw that the teacher was using learning stations. She implemented that in her classroom in a way that worked for her middle school students. She had to adapt the structure a little and increased the challenge of the activities the students were asked to do, but she realized that having the students moving from station to station around the room while completing learning activities was actually more productive.

But the benefits of active learning strategies far outweigh the challenges. For students, active learning can result in increased content knowledge, critical thinking, and problem-solving, more positive attitudes towards learning, better communication and interpersonal skills, and increased adaptability.

“It can be done,” Edwards said. “Teachers need to be convinced, and need the administrative support and resources to try it.”

Read Edwards’ article outlining these techniques for educators in The Middle School Journal.

Edwards’ study was published in Middle Grades Research Journal.


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The Augusta University College of Education is committed to being a relevant, responsive, and respected institution with a keen focus toward high impact work in the community. Our faculty, students, and alumni are committed to improving lives and expanding opportunities through the comprehensive study and effective practice of education.