Interactive learning is a must!

Vincenzo Maffeo Barberini si laurea all'Università di Pisa - Arazzo della Manifattura Barberini - Musei Vaticani

In the Spring semester 2018 I decided to mark a step forward to interactive learning which, according to Wikipedia, means the incorporation of "social networking and urban computing into course design and delivery". Actually, I have been using these tools for delivering my lectures for several years already and therefore I would like to say that interactive learning means some more to me. I believe it should imply an effective interaction between teacher and students, where interaction means that there is a feedback. Teacher and students become closer and closer, through a mutual exchange of information. It shouldn't be a one-way transfer of knowledge, but rather a two ways flow. Advantages and disadvantages are obvious.

The big advantage is that interactive learning helps students strengthen problem solving and critical thinking skills. Students are required not just to store information: they need to critically assess the information once it is stored, in order to elaborate a feedback. In traditional lecturing the critical analysis of the information is usually postponed to the study time, therefore loosing the possibility of the interaction with the teacher during what is the most critical step of the learning process. With interactive learning information is elaborated in real time, therefore profiting from the feedback to/from the teacher. Another advantage is that students and teacher are placed at the same level: teacher makes sure that students understood and students are not concerned by asking the teacher possibly trivial questions or challenging the teacher with possibly tough ones. On the contrary, trivial and challenging questions become essential ingredients for assessing student's comprehension and improving teacher's knowledge. There is no doubt that the information is more efficiently stored and readily available through interactive learning.

Furthermore, interactive learning stimulates:

  • proactivity;
  • team building capability;
  • acquaintance with digital technologies;
  • and efficiency,
  • which are the essential ingredients for a successful career. As one can see, the advantage is obvious.

    The disadvantage is that students need to attend the lectures to fully profit from the teaching outcomes. They also need to keep their attention high, and therefore lectures demand a higher amount of energy, which is of course fully justified because the outcome is expected to be more intensive. Also, interactive learning is demanding and tiring for the teacher. Teacher is required to get feedback from students and adapt the content of the lecture accordingly, and therefore lectures are never the same. Teacher needs to be prepared to flexibility and her/his background needs to be very strong. It is much more than just presenting a set of slides: it implies getting fully acquainted to a topic and explain it as current students require. Also, teacher is hopefully asked challenging questions by the students, and may be not able to reply to some of them. There is nothing wrong in it, but the teacher needs to get comfortable with a reply like "I don't know! Please give me one week time and you will get a reply to your question." To face a challenging situation with students may be not easy to get comfortable with, especially if the teacher is videotaping the lectures and making them available to everybody through Youtube, like I do.....

    As I decided to move forward to interactive learning, a critical question is what kind of activities to propose to students. There are several examples of web sites that propose interactive learning for scientists. They typically offer interaction with machines. A nice example, which is tailored for secondary school students, is given here (see also Figure 1).

    Figure 1. Interactive learning at

    However, I would like to stimulate interaction with myself, not only with a machine. Furthermore, I would like to move forward by starting with the students of my courses that are taught in English. For some reason, I believe interaction is easier when speaking in English with respect to Italian. Activities that I would like to propose include:

    • Integration and further development of the tutorials distributed by the teacher. Tutorials will be made available through a Google drive, students will have the opportunity to make comments and changes to the text. The documents resulting from the interaction between students and the teacher will be published on the web page of the teacher.
    • Preparing a discussion on specific optional topics. Students will be suggested to collect additional information on a selected subject, by eventually reading scientific papers suggested by the teacher, and will be asked to present a short Powerpoint presentation during lectures. Presentations may also be delivered during an extra-time with the attendance of external persons (like for instance Ph.D. students).
    • Preparing a Wikipedia entry, in English, through collaborative work.
    • Preparing a 10-minute question&answer session "Challenge the teacher".
    • Additional activities possibly suggested by the students.

    It is important to make clear that these activities are optional. They will not replace traditional lecturing, but will rather integrate it. The time dedicated to interactive activities will be a small portion of the whole lecture time during my first experimentation.

    Students that will participate to the interacting activities will be asked to prepare a brief summary of their work. I will give to the students the option to evaluate their interacting activities as part of their final exam. This is an opportunity to make the evaluation of the student a continuous and interactive process along the semester.

    Maybe the above teaching project is too ambitious, but I would like to give it a try. I will keep you informed, if I don't get killed by students :-)