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What is active learning?

Ines Dimassi
June 23, 2020

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 because 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 empower these behaviors is through the incorporation of regular and varied active learning methods to create engaging course designs.

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.

“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 a valise expression covering a large 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]

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

“Active learning encourages the brain to [...] process and store new information. Engaging as many sensory, cognitive, emotional, and social processes in students will increase their learning potential.” - The neuroscience of active learning, Claire Hoogendoorn

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 being proactive parts in the learning process.

However, one must remember that any method - does not matter how theoretically effective - can be used poorly, thereby ensuring poor outcomes. At FeedbackFruits, we believe this is where good 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 DoTank process, 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 are the most employed active learning strategies?

Discussion in class is, with good reason, an effective strategy to promote active learning. Indeed, if the objectives of a course are to sharpen students' critical, promote long-term retention of information or to use logic to evaluate other’s position, then a discussion is preferable to lecture [1]. 

If the objectives of a course are to promote long-term retention of information, [...] then a discussion is preferable to lecture.” - McKeachie et al., 1986

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 to name a few. In short, there are many alternatives to traditional classrooms that teachers can readily add to their repertoire of instructional skills.

While inserting new teaching methods might be challenging, a plethora of digital learning tools can make life simpler for professors, for example helping them reflect on their pedagogy, and making their teaching more inclusive. It should be reminded, however, that when incorporating technology-based activities, teachers should still be able to deliver engaging stories, 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 encourage teachers and instructional designers to co-create learning activities with us. Our suite of pedagogical tools offers 11 different ways to get students to engage with the material.  

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 they can’t always spare. Moreover, the activities themselves take more class time, constraining teachers to compromise on other study materials. The lack of support, materials, budget as well as the class sizes are also part of the constraints, making 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  [4] [5].

Each obstacle or barrier, however, can be successfully overcome through careful and thoughtful planning.

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.


[1] Frost, Susan H. 1991. Academic Advising for Student Success: A System of Shared Responsibility. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, 1991,3. Washington, D.C: School of Education, George Washington Univ.

[2] Kerrey, Bob. 2017. Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education. MIT Press.

[3] Hoogendoorn, Claire. n.d. “The Neuroscience of Active Learning – Writing Across the Curriculum.” Accessed February 3, 2020. Source

[4] “Barriers and Strategies: Implementing Active Learning in Biomedical Science Lectures - Kim - 2019 - Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education - Wiley Online Library.” n.d. Accessed June 23, 2020. Source

[5] “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.” n.d. Accessed June 23, 2020. Source

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