What is active learning?

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
June 23, 2020
Table of Contents

Equipping students with lifelong skills so that they are ready for the labour market has always remained a priority for the higher education institutions. How can we prepare learners for the future in a society that is rapidly shifting and transforming? How do we educate them for jobs that haven’t existed yet? These pedagogical questions require the implementation of appropriate teaching methods that nurture critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, and so on. Nevertheless, it can be challenging for educators to choose the right pedagogical approach out of a wide range of existing strategies. That’s why we kickstarted the series What is? to highlight different teaching approaches: their definitions, pros and cons, and how to implement them successfully in varied classroom settings. In this issue, we’ll focus on active learning.

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Active Learning: A student-centered approach 

“Active” and “passive” learning - the difference can be ambiguous. Students “resting their eyes” or texting in the back of the classroom are certainly not engaged, but is listening and taking notes during a lecture enough to consider them actively engaged? The answer is much more complex as students must do more than just listen: they must deep-read, write, discuss, be creative while solving problems, and execute higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation [1]. A great way to encourage these behaviors is through the incorporation of regular and varied active learning methods to create an overall engaging course design.

What is active learning?

So, what is active learning and why is it fundamentally different from passive learning? With active learning, the pedagogical methods are learner-centered rather than teacher-centered: the focus is on nudging students’ cognitive activities in class instead of simply letting them absorb the presented information. In other words, active learning refers to an instructional approach that is learner-centered, in which the students participate or interact with the learning process, rather than passively take in information. Furthermore, teachers take the role of facilitators of learning, instead of knowledge distributors.

“Active learning is any approach to instruction in which all students are asked to engage in the learning process. Active learning stands in contrast to "traditional" modes of instruction in which students are passive recipients of knowledge from an expert.” - Center for Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota‍

Why is Active Learning so powerful? 

Often summarised as “learning through play”, “activity-based learning”, or “group-work”, active learning is an expression covering a range of learning activities that require more than just listening. According to Stephen Kosslyn, American psychologist, neuroscientist, and expert on the science of learning, systematically implemented active learning exercises enable students to “learn effectively—sometimes without even trying to learn.” [2]. Studies also show that implementing active learning techniques can significantly improve both students’ learning and their attitudes towards learning. In other words, active learning increases student performance, engagement, interaction and knowledge retention.

The reason active learning is so effective is that it draws on underlying characteristics of how the brain functions during learning. Studies generally show that multisensory learning - as hearing, watching, digitally or analogically building, etc. - leads to the most long-term physical changes in the brain, and improves memory retention and recall. As stated by Claire Hoogendoorn, Doctor at New York City College of Technology, in her article The Neuroscience of Active Learning:

“Active learning encourages the brain to activate cognitive and sensory networks, which helps process and store new information. [...] Engaging as many sensory, cognitive, emotional, and social processes in students will increase their learning potential.”

In plain terms, the more students’ brains are activated in different ways, the more they learn. ‍

All in all, active learning is a model of learning that goes through the “activation” of the students by soliciting their cognitive abilities and processes, making them proactive parts in the learning process.

However, one must remember that any method - no matter how theoretically effective - can still generate unwanted results due to poor implementation. At FeedbackFruits, we believe this is where solid course design comes in hand. Indeed, a well-designed activity can lead to powerful learning when conducted in a setting that has been constructed for such learning. As part of the Edtech DoTank project, FeedbackFruits co-creates pedagogical tools together with higher education institutions to address educational use cases and activities that are not supported by the current available technologies. In collaboration with experts and teachers from other partner institutions, the DoTank builds new technically supported learning activities to the proposed challenges and opportunities.

What keeps instructors from implementing active learning more often?

Unfortunately, sometimes implementing active learning activities can feel like a hassle. It takes more preparation work for teachers to plan active learning exercises when compared to traditional lecture formats, which isn’t always something limited time allows for. Moreover, the activities themselves take more class time, constraining teachers to compromise on other study materials. The lack of support, materials, and budget, as well as class size, are just a few of the constraints which make it difficult to realistically implement some active learning strategies. Finally, many instructors who have done well as lecturers so far might just not be inclined to redesign their current curriculum or reassess their teaching styles [4] [5].

Within online learning environments, active learning implementation is even more challenging for instructors due to the lack of physical interaction.

The biggest issue concerns student engagement and retention while studying remotely. In a face-to-face classroom, physical contacts are readily available and are therefore often taken for granted. Online teaching, however, can require more effort from educators due to the absence of these physical interactions. Students turning off their zoom video, or keeping silent during online discussions are some common scenarios when teaching online.

Aside from lack of interactivity, technical overload remains a barrier in facilitating active learning. It can be overwhelming for both teachers and students to get familiar with different online platforms and teaching tools. Not to mention internet connection, unavailability of learning infrastructure, or geographical differences, which can also greatly hinder teachers from effectively issuing active learning.

Each of these obstacles or barriers however, can be successfully overcome through careful planning, and with the help of pedagogical technology.

What are the most common active learning strategies?

There are a number of learning activities and strategies that can be used to exercise active learning.  In other words, “The active learning strategies comprise different activities that share the common elements of involving learners in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” [7]

Considering this definition, what should we categorize as active learning methods? Several researchers have proposed a list of active learning strategies to be used by instructors in higher education contexts, which are:

      1. Collaborative learning
      2. Discussion activities: group discussion, case study, and brainstorming
      3. Role play
      4. Games involving simulation of imaginary situations
      5. Problem-based learning
      6. Projects (individual or group)
      7. Peer teaching
      8. Debates
      9. Short demonstrations followed by class discussion, etc

These activities have been proven effective in producing successful and competent learning environments. However, it is important that instructors make sure the active learning strategies selected align with the course learning objectives. Remember, the goal of active learning is not simply for students to do things, but to also think about what they are doing. As you learn more about these strategies, consider how effective each would be in promoting the learning you desire from your students.

As listed, discussion can be an effective strategy to promote active learning. Indeed, if the objectives of a course are to sharpen students' critical thinking, promote long-term retention of information or to use logic to evaluate other’s position, then a discussion can be preferable to a lecture [1]. ‍

“If the objectives of a course are to promote long-term retention of information, [...] then a discussion is preferable to lecture.” - Wilbert McKeachie, Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom. A Review of the Research Literature

Several additional strategies promoting active learning have been similarly shown to benefit students' attitudes and achievements - for example, visual-based instruction, in-class writing, and peer teaching. In short, there are many alternatives to traditional classrooms that teachers can readily add to their repertoire of instructional skills.

Here are some questions to think about when selecting an active learning strategy:

    1. Which skill(s) should my students be able to demonstrate by the end of our online class session?
    2. Which active learning strategy will allow my students to practice this skill?
    3. When will my students encounter and engage with information and ideas?
    4. When will they reflect on what they’ve learned?

Any of these active learning components can be done before, during, or after the online class session.

While inserting new teaching methods may be challenging, a plethora of digital learning tools can make life simpler for professors, for example helping them reflect on their pedagogical approach, and making their teaching more inclusive. It should be remembered however, that when incorporating technology-based activities, teachers should still be able to deliver engaging stories and anecdotes, and organize fun activities that they have tested and relied upon in the classroom that come from their own irreplaceable experience.

At FeedbackFruits, we center active learning and interaction in the development of each of our solutions. Our suite of pedagogical tools put the student in the driver’s seat of their own learning trajectory, to actively involve them in their learning - from Peer Review, where students review each other’s work and give each other feedback, as opposed to just waiting for their teachers to do so, to Interactive Study Materials, where teachers activate students through discussion prompts, questions, and the opportunity for sharing perspectives and engaging in a dialogue with their peers.

Conclusion and takeaways

Using active learning strategies does not require abandoning the lecture format, or downplaying the importance of a teacher-student relationship. Rather, adding even small active learning strategies can make a big difference in student learning and engagement. These activities give students time to check their understanding of recent material, practice a skill, or highlight gaps in their knowledge. 

An excellent first step for teachers toward implementing active learning strategies is to select the strategies that one can feel comfortable with. It is equally important, however, that faculty developers, academic administrators, educational researchers, and higher education staff, in general, recognize the need to provide follow-up to, and support for, teachers' efforts to change. After all, teaching is, and always will be, a team effort.

Read more on our What is …? series:

     What exactly is collaborative learning?

     What is team-based learning?

     What is course design and why it can make the difference between learning and yawning in class?

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