What Is Active Learning? Definition, Nature, Advantages and Examples of Active Learning

Active learning strategies require time and creativity to effectively incorporate into teaching and reap the full benefits across instructional settings and disciplines.

Active learning is one of the most discussed issues or topics in teaching-learning methods and strategies in education. It is considerably said that the method of “active learning” is such an impactful ability to teach students in more learning friendly ways.

Introduction

‘Active learning’ is not a new concept. It has become more common in college and university classrooms in recent years; but it is also highly useful in high school, and primary school. As a result, there has been a tremendous amount of study done on the topic. Numerous studies have found that active learning has a positive impact on both teaching and student learning. It has been interpreted in various ways by researchers and faculty. Any instructional method that involves students in the learning process is considered active learning. In short, active learning requires students to engage in meaningful learning activities while also reflecting on their actions.

What Is Active Learning

The term “active learning” refers to a variety of teaching and learning practices that require students to do something with course ideas and material. Active learning can range from brief exercises interspersed throughout a lecture to flipped learning models in which course material is introduced outside the classroom, such as videos, annotated screen casts, or readings, and students spend the entire class time on meaningful application and investigation of the content.

Definition of Active Learning

Active learning is a student centered approach in which the responsibility for learning is placed upon the student, often working in collaboration with classmates.

According to Michael Prince, “Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing”.

Active learning is a method of teaching that encourages students to learn through hands-on physical experiences, by trial, and error rather than rote memorization.

Nature of Active Learning

‘Active learning’ method is a student-centered method. In ‘active learning’ teachers are facilitators rather than one way providers of information. The presentation of facts, so often introduced through straight lecture, is deemphasized in favor of class discussion, problem solving, cooperative learning, and writing exercises. Other examples of active learning techniques include role-playing, case studies, group projects, think-pair-share, peer review, debates, Just in Time Teaching, and short demonstrations followed by class discussion.

Students are encouraged to participate in their learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. Students engage in writing and discussion to practice skills, solve problems, grapple with complex questions, make decisions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words. This learning process requires timely feedback from either the instructor or fellow students.

Active learning is also highly useful in high school and primary school. | Photo: Pexels 
Active learning is also highly useful in high school and primary school. | Photo: Pexels 

According to educational research, incorporating active learning strategies into university courses significantly improves student learning experiences.

Active learning is the polar opposite of passive learning; it is learner-centered, rather than teacher-centered, and requires more than just listening; active participation by each and every student is required in active learning. Students must be doing things while also thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it in order to improve their higher order thinking abilities.

Many research studies have shown that active learning as a strategy has increased achievement levels, and some others claim that active learning strategies can lead to content mastery. However, some students and teachers struggle to adjust to the new learning method.

Advantages of Active Learning

  • Students have multiple avenues for learning when they can process course material through thinking, writing, talking, and problem solving.
  • It is proven that active learning increases student performance throughout a course or academic year.

  • Applying new knowledge aids students in memorizing information, concepts, and skills by connecting it to prior knowledge, organizing knowledge, and strengthening neural pathways.

  • Active teaching techniques in the classroom result in improved academic outcomes for students.

  • Receiving frequent and immediate feedback assists students in correcting misconceptions and developing a more in-depth understanding of course material.

  • Working on activities allows students to form personal connections with the material, which increases their motivation to learn.

  • Regular interaction with the instructor and peers about shared activities and goals contributes to the development of a sense of community in the classroom.

  • By observing and conversing with students while they work, instructors can gain a better understanding of their students’ thinking.

  • Knowing how students comprehend the material allows instructors to tailor their instruction in future classes.

Active learning strategies require time and creativity to effectively incorporate into teaching and reap the full benefits across instructional settings and disciplines. However, as many of the faculty members’  at universities over the world show that active learning can be easily and effectively incorporated into existing courses and materials without requiring a major overhaul of the course.

Considerations for Active Learning

  • Create activities based on your learning objectives, especially for topics that students frequently struggle with.
  • Because students do not always make the connection on their own, be explicit about how activities relate to learning outcomes.

  • Be aware that teachers will need to cut content from their lectures in order to make room for discussion and activities; review their lectures and remove the least important parts; and consider asking students to read before class and take a low-stakes online quiz or complete an online discussion board post so that they arrive prepared to learn more advanced topics.

  • Teachers should prepare to take a break from their lecture two or more times for activities; these can be as simple as asking students to discuss students’ ideas on a question with the person sitting next to them.

  • Teachers should make sure that they follow the ‘active learning’ method on a regular basis so that students know what to expect in class.

  • Teachers should include accountability for individual and group work; for example, at the end of class, ask students to answer polling questions, upload a photo of their worksheet to Canvas, or turn in an index card with a response to a short writing prompt.

  • When students are engaged in an activity in class, teachers or his teaching assistants should move around the room to answer questions and interact with students.

  • After an activity, teachers should make sure to provide students with timely feedback; in large classes, some of the points can be skipped if those are less important. Teachers should consider the value of peer feedback, such as a think-pair-share discussion with someone sitting nearby.

Examples of Active Learning

  1. Think Pair Share: The think pair share is a teaching technique that allows students to ponder the answer to a question and then share their thoughts with a neighbor.

  2. Role Playing: Each student takes the role of a person affected by an Earth science issue, such as a volcano or a polluted lake and studies the impacts of Earth science issues on human life and/or the effects of human activities on the world around us from the perspective of that person.

  3. Discovering Plate Boundaries: Discovering Plate Boundaries is a form of group discussions method employing many aspects of cooperative learning. In the example cited here, students use the “Jigsaw” technique to learn more about plate tectonics. For a more general discussion of cooperative learning see the module on Cooperative Learning.

  4. Peer Review: Peer review provides a structured learning process for students to critique and provide feedback to each other on their work. It helps students develop lifelong skills in assessing and providing feedback to others, and also equips them with skills to self-assess and improve their own work. Students review and comment on materials written by their classmates.

  5. Learning Cell: The learning cell is an effective way for a pair of students to study and learn together. A learning cell is a process of learning where two students alternate asking and answering questions on commonly read materials.

  6. Discussion: A class discussion may be held in person or in an online environment. Discussions can be conducted with any class size, although it is typically more effective in smaller group settings. Promoting a successful discussion depends on correctly framing questions. Discover tips for framing discussion questions to promote higher order thinking.

  7. Student Debate: A student debate is an active way for students to learn because it allows them to take a stance and gather information to support and explain their point of view to others.

  8. Role Playing: students look at the topic from the perspective of a character, who will affect and be affected by a chosen topic.

  9. Problem Solving Using Real Data: Problem solving using real data is more than demonstrating examples in a classroom; students use a variety of data to explore scientific questions.

  10. Just in Time Teaching: The technique ‘just in time reaching’ can be fruitful as students read assigned material outside of class, respond to short questions online, then participate in collaborative exercises the following class period.

  11. Game Based Learning: uses competitive exercises, either pitting the students against each other or through computer simulations.

  12. Reaction: Providing reaction to documentary, speech, film, drama, formula is also an example of active learning.

  13. Learning by teaching: ‘Learning by teaching’ is another example of active learning because students actively research and prepare information to teach to the class. This helps students learn their subject matter even better, and students can sometimes learn and communicate better with their peers than with their teachers.

  14. Grab Bags: A grab bag is an excellent way to get students actively thinking and learning. Students must put their hands into an opaque bag (such as a canvas bag) and feel the item inside. They must describe the item and guess what it is based solely on their feelings. It stimulated learning through tactile methods and encouraged the use of thinking skills to solve the mystery.

  15. Inquiry Based Learning: An inquiry-based learning approach entails conducting scientific or systematic investigations into a topic of study. Students do not sit and listen and observe, but rather follow procedures to generate data about a topic.

Active learning method of teaching encourages students to learn through hands-on physical experiences and it also encourages them to learn by trial and error rather than rote memorization.

Active learning is a student centered approach in which the responsibility for learning is placed upon the student, often working in collaboration with classmates. | Photo: Pexels
Active learning is a student centered approach in which the responsibility for learning is placed upon the student, often working in collaboration with classmates. | Photo: Pexels

Conclusion

Active learning is a teaching-learning method in which students are actively or experientially involved in the learning process, with different levels of active learning based on student involvement. The method of active learning can take many different forms and be implemented in any discipline. Students will typically participate in small or large group activities centered on writing, talking, problem solving, or reflection.

Bibliography

  1. Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

  2. Center for Educational Innovation. Active Learning. University of Minnesota. https://cei.umn.edu/teaching-resources/active-learning

  3. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Introduction to Active Learning. University of Michigan. https://crlt.umich.edu/active_learning_introduction

  4. Center for Teaching Innovation. Active Learning. Cornell University. https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/active-collaborative-learning/active-learning

  5. Hanson, S., & Moser, S. (2003). Reflections on a discipline-wide project: Developing active learning modules on the human dimensions of global change. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 27(1), 17-38.

  6. Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93: 223-231. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x

  7. Starting Point-Teaching Entry Level Geoscience. Active Learning. Carleton College. https://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/gallerywalk/active.html

  8. Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., … Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483.

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