Active learning is any activity that allows students to engage the course materials during instruction so that the teacher and the student can ascertain the students' mastery of the materials and adjust the instruction to facilitate further learning.
History and Theory of Active Learning
Active learning recognizes that people learn best from experience. The concept of active learning is not new. In 1915, John Dewey recognized the importance of experiential learning in the classroom.
"The Teacher and the book are no longer the only instructors; the hands, the eyes, the ears, in fact the whole body, become sources of information, while teacher and textbook become respectively the starter and the tester. No book or map is a substitute for personal experience; they cannot take the place of the actual journey" (Dewey, Schools of To-morrow 1915: 74).
Dewey’s emphasis on students’ experience is echoed in modern critical thinking about university education. Chickering and Gamson in “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” insist that research shows that students’ learn through engaging materials:
"Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives" (American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, March 1987).
Bransford and his colleagues link active learning to the concept of metacognition. Metacognition refers to a person’s ability to predict and monitor his/her own learning.
"Teaching practices congruent with a metacognitive approach to learning include those that focus on sense-making, self-assessment, and reflection on what worked and what needs improving. These practices have been shown to increase the degree to which students transfer their learning to new settings and events" (Bransford, et al, How People Learn 2003:12).
While many faculty members learned in traditional lecture settings, they applied metacognitive approaches to their learning while studying in the dorm or at the library. Active learning recognizes the benefit of translating metacognitive practices into the actual instructional time. The premise behind active learning is that people’s memory and understanding exponentially increase with greater involvement.
Many Names, Same Principle
Writings describing efforts to increase student involvement reveal that active learning occurs in multiple ways with various names. However, the principle of student involvement with ongoing feedback remains constant. Richard Felder, North Carolina State University Chemistry Professor, describes active learning as “student centered instruction.”
"In the traditional approach to higher education, the burden of communicating course material resides primarily with the instructor. In student-centered instruction (SCI), some of this burden is shifted to the students. SCI is a broad approach that includes such techniques as substituting active learning experiences for lectures . . . assigning open-ended problems and problems requiring critical or creative thinking that cannot be solved by following text examples, involving students in simulations and role-plays, assigning a variety of unconventional writing exercises, and using self-paced and/or cooperative (team-based) learning" (Felder & Brent, 1996).
"An essential feature of any skill development program is practice and feedback. Most students have never been taught to solve open-ended problems or think critically or formulate problems, so that the first time you assign such an exercise they will probably do it poorly. Collect their products and provide constructive comments. . . . After several similar assignments and feedback sessions, students will start giving you the kind of results you're looking for and they will also begin giving one another meaningful feedback in group work. This approach serves a double purpose: the students gain more skill and confidence and you gain a classroom of teaching assistants who can help each other learn. By the end of the course, some of them may be performing at a surprisingly high level" (Felder & Brent, 1996).
Eric Mazur, Harvard Physics Professor, describes his active learning technique as ConcepTests. He developed ConcepTests to assist student learning in the large lecture classes. ConcepTests are multiple-choice questions that are interspersed through the lecture to ascertain students’ understanding of the materials and create opportunities for peer instruction. Mazur follows the following sequence:
1. Short lecture segment focusing on key concept
2. ConcepTest – question posed to students
3. Students have one minute to record their answers (through raised hands, personal response system or writing)
4. Students are asked to convince their peers of their answer
5. Students record a revised answer after peer conversation (through raised hands, personal response system or writing)
6. Brief explanation of the correct answer by the instructor
Mazur uses the ConcepTest as an informal way of assessing student understanding. “If students’ performance on the ConcepTests is satisfactory, the lecture can proceed to the next topic. Else, the teacher should slow down, lecture in more detail on the same subject, and re-assess the students with another ConcepTest on the subject. This prevents a gulf from developing between the teacher’s expectations and the students’ understanding – a gulf, which once formed, only increases with time until the entire class is lost” (Mazur).
Some faculty members use personal response systems (PRS), otherwise called ‘clickers,’ to enhance active learning in large classes. Derek Bruff describes the process in Teaching with Classroom Response Systems:
"Classroom response systems are instructional technologies that allow instructors to rapidly collect and analyze student responses to questions posed during class. Systems are typically used in the following manner. First, an instructor poses a question, often a multiple-choice question, to the students. The students think about the question and submit their responses to the questions using handheld wireless transmitters, usually called clickers, which often look like television remote controls, and beam signals to a receiving device attached to the instructor’s classroom computer. Software on the computer produces a bar chart showing the distribution of student answers. Instructors then use the results to decide how to proceed during class: having students engage in small-group or classwide discussions on the question at hand, moving on to the next topic if the results indicate students are ready, or something else entirely."
Again, we see an emphasis upon involving students actively in the materials and giving formative feedback. Whatever name one chooses (CSI, ConcepTests, Clickers, etc.), the principle behind active learning remains consistent. Instructors actively involve students with learning while creating a process of offering formative feedback.
Some Other Active Learning Strategies
Think/Pair/Share & Write/Pair/Share
Think/Pair/Share and Write/Pair/Share are activities that allow students to formulate an answer on their own to a question. Then the students pair with a partner (or partners), discuss, and compare their individual answers. After a few minutes of discussion amongst the pairs, the instructors ask groups to report their findings to the entire class.
A way of informally evaluating student understanding of difficult concepts is to ask students to take out a sheet of paper and to write an answer to a question about the current topic in 2-3 minutes. The question can simply ask the students to summarize the most important point of the lecture or to list what was the muddiest point of the subject. By reading these brief papers, the professor can gage the students’ comprehension and adjust the instruction.
This is a variation of the minute paper that asks students to write a letter home explaining a concept in simple language. The process of translating the concept into simple language helps students process and connect the ideas to former knowledge. The letter home also allows informal assessment of student comprehension.
Concept maps are visual means of showing relationships or connections between concepts. Ask students to represent the various components of a topic in a concept map that uses lines to connect how various terms relate. Concept mapping helps students to organize and identify how ideas relate in multiple ways. Students can compare their concept maps to identify the most helpful visualization of the information. Faculty can assess if students are drawing appropriate connections between the concepts.
Cooperative Groups in Class
Have students work on problems, questions or issues in groups of three to five. This strategy works well when you give each group a slightly different problem and ask each group to become experts concerning their problem. Have the groups appoint a representative to report their findings, solutions and dilemmas concerning the problem. While the groups work, the teacher circulates to observe, ask further questions and keep groups on task.
Note Check or Note Comparison
Occasionally, ask students to compare their notes with a partner. This exercise allows students to see how other students take notes; it also gives students the quick opportunity to reconsider what was important in the material. Sometimes students discover that they missed information that another student sensed was important. Ask students to share where they found discrepancies, concurrencies or interesting insights.
If You Could Ask One Question
Have students write one question about the material on an index card that they would like further explored. Then have students work in groups to discuss the questions and formulate answers. This can generate great conversations about the material among the students. Collect the index cards to see if the students have similar questions that require further clarification. Some faculty members ask students to formulate questions for a test or quiz. This can help instructors to see if students are identifying the most important information.