Adopting a Pedagogy of Active Learning


Elisabeth PRUGL


"Students learn best when teachers adopt a pedagogy of active learning. I value the opportunity to do so at the Graduate Institute, where I teach mostly small classes of students who come with excellent preparation from around the world and have chosen Geneva and the Institute because they are interested in international problems. Many students arrive with unique experiences, having lived, studied and travelled in several countries.

To enable active learning for these students, I try to create a class environment that encourages them to participate and share their knowledge. I keep lectures to a minimum, requiring instead that students come to class well prepared, having carefully read the assigned materials and prepared talking points with opinions and questions about the readings. As a result, almost everybody has something to say, and key insights emerge collectively during class discussions. While there are specific learning goals for each session, there is usually much more that happens. Imagine a discussion between students for whom feminism means the freedom to make their own decisions and others who unproblematically combine their feminism with arranged marriages or take for granted that their master degree will increase the bride price they will be able to garner. Or imagine students from the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Russia, Colombia and Nigeria discussing the aftermath of American hegemony. A highly participatory seminar session can be exhilarating when students explore insights with smart arguments and creatively bounce ideas off each other.

If the Graduate Institute has become my laboratory for facilitating active learning, I got to appreciate the philosophy by teaching undergraduates in the United States. In particular, the “mega” introductory class to International Relations that I taught for many years at Florida International University forced me to think creatively about ways to capture the imagination of students. This requires different tools for 340 undergraduates in a big auditorium than for 20 students in a graduate seminar. But these tools have one thing in common: they need to allow students to become active and take charge of their own learning.

Writing a dissertation is the culmination of active learning at the Graduate Institute, and dissertation supervision requires finding a balance between being directive and allowing a student’s ideas to flourish. I have been privileged to supervise many fascinating dissertation projects on topics (just last year) ranging from the “humanitarian imaginary” in the United Kingdom’s Comic Relief broadcasts, to the politics of male survivors of sexual violence in Uganda and life on Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings. It is deeply gratifying to read a finalised manuscript that makes a genuine contribution to knowledge and showcases the skills students have acquired through their education."

This article originally appeared in Globe No. 20, Autumn 2017.