Active Learning • The Definitive Guide
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What is Active Learning?

Active learning is any learning activity in which the student participates or interacts with the learning process, as opposed to passively taking in the information.

Active learning is the 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.

Active learning can take many forms and be executed in any discipline. Commonly, students will engage in activities centered around asking and answering questions, sharing different points of views, problem solving, and summarizing conclusions.

‘The Objective of Education Is Learning, Not Teaching’

When given the opportunity to actively engage with the information they’re learning, students perform better. It nurtures the brain, giving it an extended opportunity to connect new and old information, correct previous misconceptions, and reconsider existing thoughts or opinions.

–Samuel Butler

In Quoana we have think that:


Research into why active learning works

According to a study into learning-centered approaches to education, students learn more when they participate in the process of learning. Active learning is discussion, practice, review, or application. Problem solving. Exploring new concepts in groups. Working out a math problem on a piece of paper.

Active learning encourages your brain to activate cognitive and sensory networks, which helps process and store new information. Claire Hoogendoorn, New York City College of Technology wrote a good introductory article on the neuroscience of active learning. She summarized several studies, writing, “…learning is enhanced when multiple neural pathways are activated at the same time. In plain terms, the more we can activate students’ brains in different ways, the more they learn. This means that engaging as many sensory, cognitive, emotional, and social processes in students will increase their learning potential.”

What’s more, Cornell University found that research suggests learner attention starts to wane every 10–20 minutes during lectures — which means instructors are continuously fighting to keep attention. Incorporating regular, varied active learning moments is a great solution to recapture an audience.

Unblurring the lines

The line between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ learning can be blurry. Isn’t a student taking notes during a lecture actively engaged in a class, especially when compared to their peers sleeping or texting in the back of the room? Perhaps, at some point in time, active note-taking was the best we could hope for from our students.

A 1991 study on active learning called “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom”, the researchers (citing even earlier research) talked about the need to upgrade how we think about engaging our learners:

…many faculty assert that all learning is inherently active and that students are therefore actively involved while listening to formal presentations in the classroom. Analysis of the research literature (Chickering and Camson 1987), however, suggests that students must do more than just listen: They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (Bonwell and Eison 1991)

The problem we see today is that students furiously typing or scribbling notes are more focused on getting every word down, rather than evaluating, understanding, and analyzing what it is they are meant to be learning. They have engaged with the professor, but not the material being relayed — which is the most important part.

In a world with a job market increasingly focused on independent critical thinking abilities, we must teach our learners how to go deeper and engage those higher-order thinking tasks. Reconsidering the degree and form by which students are actively participating matters if we want to truly impact long-term outcomes and futures.

Leaving a history of didactic instruction in the past

Didactic instruction — an authoritative, lecture-heavy approach to teaching in which the learner is fairly passive — turns the teacher into a dispenser of knowledge and the student into a mostly idle recipient. Students can still ask questions of the teacher to gain/broaden understanding, but although it doesn’t have to be an ‘all-one-way’ approach, it is generally fairly one-sided.

An image of an old lecture hall

Didactic teaching and lecture can be dated back to the 14th century medieval times, when instructors read to students while they took notes. At the time, information wasn’t easily accessible nor available, so this method solved for the problem of the age; large lectures halls were the best available method for sharing and spreading knowledge. “Education” for students became “take copious notes and memorize as much information as possible”.

In the Age of Information, we can thankfully move forward and away from lecture-only models.

Lectures alone are too often a useless expenditure of force. The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome; but it runs through. A mind must work to grow. (Charles Wiliam Elliot 1869)

Passive learning vs. Active learning

Teaching that remains a one-way transfer of information from instructor to student is now a widely-criticized pedagogical model, accepted as being a poor way to motivate students to learn. But those models can be updated:

  1. Passive learning is the lecture on deadly diseases, while active learning is the discussion on which diseases students have heard about and in what context.
  2. Passive learning is providing the image of a cell which is already annotated, while active learning is providing the unlabeled image of a cell for students to explore and annotate themselves.
  3. Passive learning is the video watched in a dark classroom without thinking prompts or discussion, while active learning is the simulation which reacts to student interaction or pauses to ask formative questions.

Of course, there are times when passive learning is useful, e.g. scaffolding learners towards expertise more efficiently. But teaching without providing an opportunity to ask questions and discuss is, as attributed to Elliot above, like pumping information into a sieve; ultimately, learners will retain grains of new information, but most will be lost.