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What is Active Learning? And Why it Matters

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Gouldian Finch | May 13, 2019
What is Active Learning? And Why it Matters

Active learning is a teaching method that works wonders. Think about some things you’ve learned. How to drive, change a tire or prepare a meal. You may have first been instructed by a parent. Or watched a how-to video. But it was through the process of actually changing that tire that you truly learned the skills. When you did that, you were engaged in active learning. 

Not all methods of fostering learning are created equal. Lecturing to students seated in rows of desks was for decades the method of choice. Now we know better. We know that active learning is vastly more effective.

Active learning is the opposite of the passive (and passé) teacher-led lecture. The old-school approach exemplified the transmission theory of teaching. The instructor had knowledge. Their job was to transmit that knowledge. And the students’ role was to passively listen and absorb the knowledge.

Today’s guiding model is constructivism. The students’ job is to participate in the construction of knowledge. The instructor’s role is to facilitate that journey. Encouraging students to participate in the construction of knowledge builds deeper understanding. It fosters critical thinking and develops problem-solving skills. To accomplish this calls for active learning techniques.

Active learning defined 

Students are involved in active learning when they’re participants in the learning process. The widely accepted academic definition comes from researcher Michael Prince. “Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” 1 Simple, right? Yet active learning is so much more. 

Students learning by working together

The goal of active learning is for students to personally engage with the material. To participate in the class. And to collaborate with one another. Thus, active learning is often defined by the activities that students do to construct knowledge and insight. The activities themselves vary. Yet they all push students to think both about the work they’re doing and the purpose behind it. 2 This enhances higher order thinking. Things like evaluating, creating and analyzing. All of which are critical to real-world application of knowledge. 

Shifting teaching methods

The key to active learning is for instructors to engage students in the learning process. Active learning doesn’t just happen. Teachers must “create a learning environment that makes it more likely to occur.”3 For teachers themselves trained in old-school methods, implementing active learning tactics requires a shift in perspective. No longer can they expect students to simply listen and memorize. Instead, they must devise ways to bring students into the learning process.

In the U.S., higher education is on the forefront of this transition. Instructors have been adapting to active learning for over a decade. To date, more than 200 U.S. universities have implemented active learning classrooms. 4

Many, like Stanford and the University of Minnesota, have initiatives to train instructors in active learning practices.  Primary and secondary schools are swiftly responding to the evidence in support of active learning. In 2018 a Forbes education contributor wrote that the top learning trend in K-12 classrooms was active learning spaces. 5

Teaching for active learning means:

  • Becoming a facilitator and guide
  • Fostering independent, critical and creative thinking
  • Focusing on the why rather than the how of learning
  • Encouraging effective collaboration
  • Transforming students from passive listeners to active participants
  • Developing and implementing interactive, student-centered activities

Transitioning from instruction to construction means that teachers must give up the reins and not control all the learning.  For students accustomed to passive listening and note-taking, the change can also be challenging. On the one hand, they may enjoy the added freedom. On the other, some will recognize that they actually have more responsibility. Some will immediately rise to the challenge. Others will need more transitional support. 

Active learning in action

Many types of teaching activities facilitate active learning. From learning through play and project-based learning. To group work and technology-based learning. If students are participating in the learning process through experience, it’s active learning.

student debate example of active learning

Active learning strategies include asking students to:

  • Demonstrate a process
  • Analyze an argument
  • Conduct experiments
  • Apply a concept to a real-world situation
  • Produce short written exercises
  • Engage in problem-solving
  • Conduct research and present findings
  • Discuss concepts with peers
  • Participate in real-world simulations
  • Hold a debate
  • Create videos
  • Go on real or virtual field trips
  • Work collaboratively

Incorporating active learning in a lecture-based curriculum can be challenging. Two methods have proven useful: The mini-lecture and the active-listening lecture.6 To use the mini-lecture approach, the instructor delivers information in short chunks. About ten to twenty minutes at a time. He or she then pauses to enable students to consolidate their notes, find gaps, and work with classmates to fill in gaps.

The active listening format asks students to listen attentively for short chunks of time. Without writing notes. Then, students work in pairs or small groups. Together they restate, clarify, and elaborate on the lecture's content.

think-pair-share active learning

Other techniques include:

  • Think-pair-share. Think-pair-share activities have become a mainstay of active learning.  Following a lesson, students take a moment to think about the content. Then share their thoughts with one or more peer. The final step is to share their thoughts with the class. During this final phase, the instructor steps in as a guide as needed to clarify information.
  • Class discussion. Using the Socratic method to provoke thoughtful dialogue promotes higher-order thinking.
  • Small group discussion. Breaking into subgroups helps more students actively participate. Creative variations include turning the discussion into a game, competition or assignment.
  • The “one-minute paper.” Short written responses are a great way to review materials and assess student understanding.
  • Peer review. Students review and comment on one another’s materials.
  • Role playing. This method can be adapted in many ways. Students can take the perspective of fictional or historical characters. They can be challenged to look at a topic, question or controversy.
  • Game-based learning. Competitive or cooperative activities count. They can run the gamut from the traditional to the creative. Tech-enhanced to live action.
  • Collaborative learning groups.  Groups of several students are given an assignment or task to work on together. This could be anything from responding to a question to a hands-on project. Any of which can be presented to the entire class.
  • Learning by teaching. Students gain deep knowledge then instruct their peers. 

Key principles of active learning

Educators use seven key principles to maximize the impact of active learning.7 Activities for active learning are more successful the more they:

  • Are relevant to students' concerns
  • Require students to reflect on the meaning of what they’ve learned
  • Give students the opportunity to negotiate goals
  • Enable students to critically evaluate different ways and means of learning the content
  • Encourage students to understand learning tasks as they relate to real-life complexities
  • Are developed based on the need of the given situation
  • Are engaging and reflect real-life tasks 

students engaging in active learning

The Benefits of active learning

As Albert Einstein famously noted, “Education is not the learning of facts, but teaching the mind to think.” Passive learning is more the former than the latter. By contrast, active learning develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The benefits of active learning compared to traditional lectures are well documented. By two hundred and twenty-five studies to be exact. For one thing, exam scores improved. For another, average grades increased by half a letter grade. Finally, failure rates decreased by 55%. That bears repeating. This massive meta-analysis showed that in traditional lecture classes, students failed 55% more often. If this applied to the comparison of two medical interventions, the authors concluded, it would ethically compel that all participants be moved to the positive-outcome group!8

Several other studies have shed light on the positive effects of active learning vs. traditional lecture9. These benefits include:

  • Greater comprehension and memory
  • Increased content knowledge
  • Improved critical thinking and problem-solving abilities
  • More positive attitudes towards learning
  • Increased enthusiasm in both students and instructors
  • Greater development of creative thinking, adaptability, communication and interpersonal skills 

Conclusion: Active Learning Works 

The research proves it. Learning should not be a spectator sport. Both students and teachers thrive when classes are designed with an active, student-centered approach. When students are invited to participate in structuring their own learning, both final outcomes and motivation along the way increase. Students become more invested in their own learning. And the skills they gain position them for future career and college readiness.

 

References:

1 Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Article in Journal of Engineering Education 93:223-231 · July 2004. Accessed 5.8.19 at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220017715_Does_Active_Learning_Work_A_Review_of_the_Research

2 Active Learning. Wikipedia. Accessed 5.8.19 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_learning

3 Michael, Joel. Where's the evidence that active learning works? Accessed 5.8.19 at: https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/advan.00053.2006

Morrone, Anastasia. Creating Active Learning Classrooms Is Not Enough: Lessons from Two Case Studies. Accessed 5.8.19 at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/12/creating-active-learning-classrooms-is-not-enough-lessons-from-two-case-studies

5 Vander Ark, Tom. Top Education Trend Of 2018: Active Learning Spaces. Accessed 5.8.19 at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomvanderark/2018/12/21/top-education-trend-of-2018-active-learning-spaces/#57f3ccdc779e

6 Active Learning. Teaching Entry Level Geoscience. Accessed 5.8.19 at: https://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/gallerywalk/active.html

7 Adapted from Barnes, D 1989, Active Learning, Leeds University TVEI Support Project.

8, 9 Active Learning Classrooms. Queen’s University. Accessed 5.8.19 at: https://www.queensu.ca/activelearningspaces/active-learning/benefits-active-learning