Setting the Stage for Active Involvement in Your Learning Environment

These days, traditional lectures have taken on the aura of an ancient technology whose time has long ago come and gone. In fact, some claim lectures are like the carpet-beaters of old. They were not very good at cleaning carpets even in their day, but they were all we had.

The lecture method of formal education has been under attack to varying degrees for more than one hundred years, but it is only within the last two decades we have some credible scientific evidence on how the brain learns. Advances in computerized imaging technology have made this research possible, and it confirms what many have long believed. The passive nature of a lecture presentation is not the most effective way to learn. The brain needs to be actively involved in the learning process. As long ago as the days of Socrates, some educators suspected this to be true and effectively used questioning techniques to engage the minds of their students.

However, even in the presence of this contemporary research, the debate about what constitutes effective education rages on. For one thing, the research is far from conclusive and defining what qualifies as active learning can be difficult. In addition, there are still many educators who are attracted by the idea of active involvement, but firmly believe they have too much content of a critical nature to invest precious minutes in learning involving activities.

Some proponents of student-centered learning and discovery learning approaches feel learners should not only be involved in the learning process, they should also be involved in determining what is to be learned.

Others maintain there is still a need for teachers to be responsible for determining what content is most important, while at the same time recognizing the need for presentations and follow-up activities that promote active involvement.

In addition, many teachers who are adopting active learning approaches realize that certain learners do better with a gradual shift away from more traditional methods.

In either case, teachers and instructors sometimes forget about setting the stage for whatever involvement methods they are going to use.

There is nothing magical about setting the stage. It is simply a matter of letting your students know what you are planning before it happens. Think of it as starting a session with the syllabus of the day.

For example, if you have a 10-minute presentation on management styles planned, followed by a group task to list the similarities and differences or advantages and disadvantages of each style, let the class in on your plans.

If learners know they will be immediately asked to apply what they have learned, they are more motivated to pay attention. Do this for your entire lesson plan, letting students know exactly what you plan to cover and at what points they will get directly involved.

Over time, you can expand this idea and offer a range of activities from which they can choose following a content presentation. For example, if your follow-up group discussion activity is a rank-ordering task, you can provide different criteria for the rank-order and allow each group to select the criteria they feel would be most beneficial to their own learning.

Dr Bryan A. West is the owner and manager of Fortress Learning ( ), an Australian Registered Training Organisation who consistently generates greater than 90% student satisfaction ratings with their range of online courses. Learn more by visiting