Engaged Learning: How Can It Help?

W. Brian Lane is a physics professor who also wrote the very first post for Scholar’s Compassour ongoing online devotional for academics. This fall, he’s writing a series on engaged learning and how it can help Christian academics teach well in the university and the church. In our mission to support emerging Christian scholars, we’ve found that one key question most grad students and early career profs are asking is how they can serve their students by teaching well. We’re delighted to publish Brian’s reflections on engaged learning this fall, and we hope they help you as you hone the craft of teaching. 

Why Engaged Learning Is Relevant to Christian Educators

A brief introduction to engaged learning

Engaged learning can be summarized in one pithy observation: “The one who does the work is the one who gets the learning.” For example, in the physics classes I teach, this means that if I go up to the board and solve a problem, I have learned something about doing physics, while my students have learned something about watching someone else do physics (which won’t carry them very far). On the other hand, if my students solve a problem, they have learned something about doing physics, and I have learned something about how they learn.

Time and again, educational research has shown that activities designed to actively engage students in applying concepts and forming connections between those concepts produce better learning gains than the traditional lecture. For example, when students actively diagnose their mistakes on an assignment, they perform better on subsequent assignments (Mason et al, 2016). Instructors see higher pre-to-post-instruction scores when their students interact with each other over simple predictive questions (Fagen et al, 2002). In fact, the worst engaged-learning courses produce better outcomes than the best lecture-based courses (Hake, 98). These trends seem based on the very wiring of the human brain itself (Cozolino, 2013). It seems, then, that engaged learning is quite relevant to us as Christian educators who want to take our calling seriously and want to base our practices on how God created our students.

Engaged learning in the Bible

Engaged learning is also relevant to us because, in the Bible, learning is serious business. The options presented to us are to learn Christ (Ephesians 4:20), learn nothing (2 Timothy 3:6-7), or learn (more) sin (1 Timothy 5:13). Jesus commanded his hearers to both learn from him (Matthew 11:29) and learn from their own study and reflection (Matthew 9:13). Jesus took learning seriously, holding classes and office hours right until his crucifixion, then picking up with a survey of the Old Testament just hours after his resurrection (Luke 24)!

We can also find Jesus and Paul (among others) employing what we today call engaged learning. Jesus infamously employed the rabbinical method of teaching via questions, prompting his listeners to wrestle over both their understanding and acceptance of the truth. The Gospel authors, picking up on this practice, allow many of these questions to hang unanswered in the texts. Jesus’ parables, likewise, were designed to leave one engaged and working hard to learn; paralleling today’s ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction) model of learning motivation (Keller, 1987), the parables grabbed the attention of their hearers, were situated in relevant contexts, appeared accessible, and left their hearers wanting to learn more. And perhaps most importantly, Jesus and Paul followed a mentorship model in their teaching that educators are only recently applying in the classroom.

Just-in-Time Teaching: An example of engaged learning

We should also note that most of Jesus’ hearers came to him already wrestling the truth, and, if not, Jesus would give them wrestling assignments (Matthew 19:16-22). This practice is similar to Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT), the most impactful engaged learning strategy in my courses. JiTT has a few key components that make it effective:

  1. Prior to class, students read an assigned text in search of answers to specific questions. One can vary these warm-up questions from week to week, but I simply ask the same three warm-up questions for each reading: What is one thing in this chapter that stood out to you? What is one question you have after reading this chapter? What is one thing in this chapter good for, in “real life?”
  2. The instructor reviews the students’ warm-up responses shortly before class, identifying shortcomings in students’ understandings and frequent items of interest.
  3. The instructor incorporates the students’ warm-up responses into the notes for the class session. In my classes, I paste quotes of students’ responses into the notes, then engage their comments and questions directly. If there’s a concept that all the students understood well, then we don’t spend more than a few minutes reviewing it. When there is a question that all the students ask, we spend the bulk of class time investigating it.

JiTT is a nice first step away from lecture and into engaged learning since one can base class activities directly on the students’ needs.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the opportunities and pitfalls of employing engaged learning in a church environment.

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W. Brian Lane

W. Brian Lane received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Florida in 2008 and is now a Professor of Physics at Jacksonville University. His favorite classes to teach include Electromagnetic Theory and Technical Communication. He has also occasionally taught adult Sunday School classes, and produces videos for his YouTube channel Let’s Code Physics. Whether at church, in the university, or on YouTube, Brian enjoys teaching with interactive engagement practices with an eye toward mentoring learners. @WBrianLane

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