Active learning approaches with purpose

Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences
Weekly Colloquium Spring 2021 Series

4 pm on Thursday, February 11, 2021
Contact the department for zoom details or to subscribe to the seminar email list

Paul Blowers
University Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, University of Arizona


Many faculty have heard about active learning approaches but may be intimidated by what that means and how to deploy them because of perceived barriers like the time it takes to create the materials, the time it takes to do the activities, and maintaining control of the class through deployment.  This interactive seminar will start by briefly looking at some literature that shows the impact of active learning on student success and achievement. 

We will then discuss some of the affordances of deploying active learning approaches that surprise many practitioners when they start to become more comfortable with constructing activities and scaffolding approaches for students to be able to access and master the content in a class.  One of the affordances includes formative assessment, which is becoming open to collecting information during class that informs what you need to say.  Oftentimes, an activity can be intentionally designed to reveal what students understand and where they are confused so that you can take corrective action immediately.  Another affordance is linked with formative assessment, but focused on timing.  Pacing of a class is easier to modify when deploying activities because you are seeing the work and thinking of students and you can speed up or slow down as needed.  One more obvious affordance of using active learning is that students are engaged, alert, and participating while they construct their knowledge of the content.

Some practical tips about tasks becomes useful when using active learning.  The task given to the students should be focused, purpose driven, have a flow that feels natural, and have a direct deliverable that can be observed.  There are both high and low technology ways of these things being done in real or virtual classrooms.  The skills to do these things quickly builds when a faculty member deploys and technique and then is open to seeing how the students respond.  Examples of high- and low-tech ways of doing these four things will be explored during the seminar.  Several types of prompts and the purpose behind them will be shared so that faculty can think about how they might apply some of the ideas in their own courses, for students of differing abilities and levels of background. 

In order for active learning to be effective in the classroom, the students do need to do some preparatory work that they are held accountable for.  This pre-work can take the form of assigned reading with pre-quizzes, setting up a problem and submitting it for completion credit, or watching a recording that shows who accessed it.  There are plusses and minuses of each kind of pre-work and those will be discussed.

As much as possible, we will use the tools in Zoom like participant reactions, the chat, polls, and other free tools to deploy active learning approaches during the seminar to get a sense of pacing, flow, and how the approaches are experienced.


Dr. Paul Blowers received his B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from Michigan State University in 1994 before moving to The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he earned his M.S. in Chemical Engineering in 1997, followed by his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in 1999. He moved to the University of Arizona in 1999 and began his academic career. Dr. Blowers has received numerous teaching awards at the local, regional and state levels for his innovative approaches to helping students master complex content while transitioning into becoming successful independent learners. His research is currently on sustainability topics and on retention of students.