Active Learning

One problem in education is that there are constant waves of interest–some might say hype–around fashionable terms. Very often the core concepts behind the terms are not new and the important new concepts are not made clear.

One good example is “active learning”. There may be a false sense that all of education is mainly made up of students sitting passively listening to instructors providing lectures and that a few brave innovators have recently started to change this. In a sense, all learning is active. Students sitting passively in a lecture theatre are learning if they are actively processing what they see and hear. Quiet contemplation can be considered active learning, if a student is cognitively active.

The true value in the modern sense of active learning is making the active part of learning explicit. There needs to be analysis, synthesis and evaluation evident in the learning tasks as they occur, not just in exams many months later. For example, reading a chapter for an assignment is a learning task in which active learning (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) is implicit in the act of reading. If students are asked to highlight what they think are the key passages in the reading assignment and compare their selections with their peers, this task makes explicit the active learning. It also exposes potential flaws in their cognitive approach that can be corrected thereby enhancing their future learning.

active learning class scene 2

Bonwell and Eison, 1991, define active learning this way: “Active learning engages students in two aspects–-doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” Active learning in this sense relates to the concept of “reflective practice” (see: May, 2013 entry), which theorists identify as a key skill of effective professionals. Active learning begins to develop this important skill in aspiring professionals.

Active learning exists on a continuum rather than as an absolute. Thus, if student time is spent reading and listening without verification of their being cognitively active in these tasks, the learning is relatively passive. If the time is spent solving problems and creating tangible outputs (e.g. a concept map), it is relatively active. The concept is also very much related to flipping the classroom–another fashionable term covered in a previous blog entry. It should be immediately apparent upon walking into a classroom where active learning is taking place that students are fully engaged in learning. The pictures above and below provide an illustration of this:

active learning class scene

There now are a range of tools that instructors can use to help facilitate more active learning. Low-tech ones include highlighting, drawing and using Post-it notes. High-tech tools include the advanced learning spaces discussed in the last blog entry or apps for iPads and other such devices. Aurasma is one example of this as illustrated in this video:

Bonwell, C.; Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.