What is Active Learning?

We have asked these questions of many students and teachers. With remarkable predictability, they respond by saying their learning involved doing things and figuring things out, repeatedly, over time. Most say that their understanding developed in different ways, for example, from doing, watching, reading, thinking, representing, listening, and talking.
If you answered the initial questions in a similar way, you described how the fields of the learning sciences, cognitive science, and educational psychology now think about how people learn. These Constructivist and Social Constructivist theories of learning tell us that people learn by actively constructing knowledge and understanding, rather than passively receiving knowledge from a teacher or textbook. Thus, learning builds on prior knowledge and is promoted by having experiences and making sense of them, forming and validating ideas, and communicating with others.

Active Learning has become a way to describe the types of pedagogy that are rooted in constructivism. Active learning calls for student participation that is not just social, but involves meaningful cognitive engagement with the content, both individually and collectively. This often involves purposefully designed learning activities and situations that draw students into the dance of thinking with peers, in small groups and large groups —generally referred to as collaborative learning. Examples of collaborative active learning are Problem Based Learning (PBL), Learning by Design (LBD), Inquiry-Based Instruction, andPeer Instruction, to list a few.

Other forms of active learning focus on shifting away from a transmission role for teachers. Content delivery and warm-up assignments are moved out of the classroom, so in-class time can be spent discussing concepts, addressing misconceptions and questions, applying important ideas, and building deeper understanding. Flipped classrooms and Just in Time Teaching (JiTT) are examples of active learning approaches that cross between in-class and out-of-class. In many of these approaches, technology is often used to help learners visualize knowledge (e.g., simulations and animations) and provide frequent feedback opportunities (e.g., clicker questions), a hallmark of active learning.

Key to all of these active learning approaches is the assumption that teaching should not focus on delivery of factual knowledge and information, but instead develop students’ understanding of important ideas and concepts. Practical concerns involve the changed role of the teacher. It would be simplistic to view the teacher’s role as merely changing from “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” Though such change is an important feature of active learning, teachers must synchronize or orchestrate the cognitive, pedagogical, and practical aspects of the classroom (or learning environment) without being at the centre of the instruction. Active involvement that is material, social, and intellectual may be expected of students in these learning environments, and this necessitates fostering new roles for students who are accustomed to being passive recipients of knowledge.

Active learning and constructivism are not new. Vygotsky, and Piaget wrote about constructivism. Dewey stressed the role of experiential learning, and originated PBL back in the early 1900s. So what’s new? Over the past decades, in particular, researchers have begun to seriously look at learning within the classroom setting at all educational levels (including college and university). From this work in varying science disciplines, they have amassed much evidence that active learning works. With increasing use of the Internet, many active learning approaches have received a lot of publicity, and technology is allowing us to think of ways to break down old barriers and to re-envision the look and feel of traditional classroom spaces and roles. It is an exciting time to be involved in science education!

This first blog is our effort to recap the theory that underlies active learning and to point out some of the well-known forms and approaches. Future blogs will delve more deeply into specific active learning approaches and focus on research on active learning (both within and outside our community), development of active learning classrooms and the use of technology, challenges and problems encountered, and anything else that you want to share, discuss, or learn about.

Last Modified: March 28, 2017