How an active learning environment positively benefitted me

Group of college students doing a project together, active learning

Last fall, I took a class called Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology I. Being a biology major, I was super excited to dive into the very concepts that sparked my interest in this field. However, I found myself dozing off more often than I care to admit from my seat in the front of the lecture hall. (And I wasn’t the only one.)

My professor was an all-around nice guy who really knew his stuff. That being said, I just couldn’t get into the PowerPoints he would read off of in class.

Fast forward to winter and to Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology II. I had a different professor, and I showed up to the lecture hall with my notebook and pen, ready to take notes.

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

Over the next ten weeks, my new professor promoted an active approach to learning, as opposed to the passive learning approach utilized by my previous instructor. Active learning encourages students to be more engaged in the classroom, and this can be achieved through group work and/or participating in a variety of class activities.

In other words, active learning isn’t just reading off of a PowerPoint.

My professor was clear about what she expected from us from day one: We would read an assignment from the textbook and complete an online quiz prior to lecture. During lecture, we worked in groups to answer problems related to the concepts we read about. She and two teaching assistants would walk around the lecture hall and help groups answer the questions, as well as lead class discussions on the different topics our readings focused on. At the end of class, we would fill in an outline of learning objectives that she gave us. These helped me focus my studies on the most important concepts from each lecture and reflect on my understanding of the material. (My friends and I affectionately called these learning objectives “bae.” They went everywhere with me!)

If we focus solely on my grades, the average test score from my active learning bio class was a whole letter grade better than my passive learning bio class, but there were more important benefits than just this.

From this class, I learned how to effectively communicate my ideas to others through our group and class discussions, and having the opportunity to clarify ideas for others in my group boosted my confidence tenfold. Through class problems, I learned how the biological concepts we were learning applied to real world situations. Rather than looking at the material superficially, I was able to take my understanding of the material further by formulating hypotheses, drawing conclusions, and analyzing problems—something that passive learning lacks. I even found myself more motivated when it came time to studying and doing homework because I felt more connected to the material.

While the majority of students in my class adored the way our professor ran her classroom, some students did not. That being said, my professor could’ve easily stood in the front of the room and read off a PowerPoint. She chose to put in the extra effort to make sure we were all engaged and involved in our learning. Having a professor who cared that much about my learning experience was invaluable, and I hope everyone has an opportunity to experience active learning in a classroom at least once. I know, without a doubt, it is an experience that I would do again in a heartbeat.

Olivia Pagan

Olivia Pagan

Olivia is a first-generation college student with a passion for student success and a drive for excellence. She began her college career in September 2013, receiving her Associate of Science degree two years later. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences at Drexel University. Outside of the classroom, Olivia is a volunteer undergraduate researcher, as well as a member of The American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Student Chapter on campus. She is also a proud member of the 2015-2016 Pearson Student Advisory Board. Olivia hopes to one day become a biomedical researcher and higher-level educator, encouraging students to settle for nothing less than brilliance in their educational endeavors.