Trust in an Active Learning Classroom

In this section, Dr. Jeremy Orloff and Dr. Jonathan Bloom discuss the importance of trust in their active learning classroom and their strategies for promoting it.

Trust is an important aspect of active learning. It’s difficult to have animated discussions if students worry that instructors will belittle their ideas. We set a tone early on that we, as instructors, make mistakes. In fact, we often politely made fun of each other for making those mistakes!

During class sessions, we spent a lot of time talking with groups and meeting with students individually. We used this time to model how we hoped students would interact with each other—emphasizing the importance of probing each other’s ideas and being enthusiastic about offering clarification, as opposed to making colleagues feel inadequate. This helped create a culture of trust.

We also structured the class in such a way that students understood that we positioned them as learners becoming gradually more adept at navigating the material, as opposed to experts already versed in the content. The expectation was not that the problems presented in class were ones students would be able to run through from start to finish with no challenges, but rather that students, after gaining a modest encounter with the material via targeted course readings, would learn collectively how to approach the problems with the support of the instructors and their peers.

Importantly, we assessed students’ learning formatively—not summatively—during class sessions and provided students with immediate feedback about their learning. These strategies created excitement about moving everyone toward successively solving the problems and was much more conducive to developing trust than expecting students to stand up and solve problems as if they were taking an exam.