First Base: Active Learning by Lynn Foord, PhD

Mar 7, 2012
Note:  This is the first in a series of follow-up comments to last month's blog (Looking for the Institute's Triple Play: Get your Eye On the Ball).  I asked our new Director of the Prerequisites Program, Dr. Lynne Foord, to give some thoughts about Active Learning and its role at the Institute.  Read on and you will  know a bit more about active learning and its importance as one of the many dimensions for teaching and learning at the IHP!  Alex Johnson, Provost
Lynn Foord, Associate Professor, Center for Interprofessional Studies and Innovation 
Lynn Foord, Ph.D.    

Many instructors of late have begun to consider transitioning all or part of their class time to active learning . There are lots of interpretations of active learning; all value some means of putting the learner in charge of his/her learning. Unfortunately, some interpret this to mean that faculty then simply provide or refer to resources and step away. In actuality, the instructor never steps away, only steps into a role larger than that of repository of information (“Sage on the Stage”) to apply her/his expertise and experience to the design of learning experiences for the students (“Guide on the Side”).

What will transition to active learning mean in practice?

Richard Thornburg (1996) in Campfires in Cyberspace proposes that we can think of learning happening through a combination of four different environments. The Campfire is the one-way delivery of information from a respected sage. The Watering Hole refers to the informal peer discussions that happen outside of the Campfire (or classroom). The Cave refers to the time when we reflect about what we have learned. Life is, well, life—when we apply what we know in actual practice.

This model seems ideal for health professions education. We all know that our students need access to the essential foundational information found in texts and articles and at Campfires. Equally they need to be able to learn from interactions in the health care community with peers, patients, families. And throughout they need to be able to think critically about their options and choices to be able to apply their knowledge and skills in uncertain, complex clinical situations.

Innovation is at the core of the IHP Strategy Map. Innovators don’t start from scratch; rather, innovators look between the past, the present and the future and develop new ways to use familiar resources. So how can we use our current resources in designing learning experiences that will successfully prepare our students not only to perform well in their academic and clinical education, but to continue to learn and grow throughout their professional practice?

I keep coming back to Thornburg’s model. Our faculty bring expertise, knowledge and wisdom to their courses—we need to be sure that they are available for Campfires at the right time in each course.

But let’s not stop there—let’s free up the faculty to also allow them to create Watering Holes where they can share their expertise in learning activities in which students to engage actively with the material. Some obvious examples of Watering Holes are discussions, “think-pair-share” activities, role plays, debates, case analyses, and simulations.

Consider also how we can encourage our students to use Cave Time to critically reflect upon what they have learned and visualize what they can do with their knowledge and skills? At a recent symposium on teaching at Harvard, the speakers talked about “Flipping the Classroom” presenting a challenging, authentic problem to students for critical reflection. Class time then is constructed to do what used to be homework: to explore, examine, consider the problem in authentic ways (“how would you use this in the clinic?”)by interacting with other students, and with guidance from the instructor who shares his/her experience and expertise.

The transition to active learning involves doing what we are already doing—just differently. We are fortunate here to have resources as we make the transition: Instructional Designers, our Librarian; our colleagues who have taught in 2CC, in the simulation labs, in small groups and in large classes.

We are, after all, learners as well as instructors ourselves. If we practice active learning in all of Thornburg’s environments, we can bring those experiences as well as our clinical experiences, expertise, and judgment to our students.

Berret, D. (2012) How Flipping the Classroom can improve the traditional lecture.  The Chronicle of Higher Education Accessed March 7, 2012Lambert, C. (2012) Twilight of the Lecture.  Harvard Magazine  Accessed March 7, 2012


Thornburg, D. (1996) Campfires in Cyberspace. San Carlos, CA. Starsong Publications.


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