Active Learning: In Need of Deeper Exploration

Most of us think we know what active learning is. The word engagement quickly comes to mind. Or, we describe what it isn’t: passive learning. Definitions also abound. The one proposed by Bonwell and Eison in an early (and now classic) active learning monograph is widely referenced: involving “students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” (p. 2)

Teaching Professor Blog Those are fine places to start, but as interest in active learning has grown—and with its value now firmly established empirically—what gets labeled as active learning continues to expand. Carr, Palmer, and Hagel recently wrote, “Active learning is a very broad concept that covers or is associated with a wide variety of learning strategies.” (p. 173) They list some strategies now considered to be active learning. I’ve added a few more: experiential learning; learning by doing (hands-on learning); applied learning; service learning; peer teaching (in various contexts); lab work; role plays; case-based learning; group work of various kinds; technology-based strategies such as simulations, games, clickers, and various smart phone applications; and classroom interaction, with participation and discussion probably being the most widely used of all active learning approaches. Beyond strategies are theories such as constructivism that have spun off collections of student-centered approaches that promote student autonomy, self-direction, and self-regulation of learning.

What qualifies as active learning remains largely unchallenged. An example of why that’s an issue has become clear in the lecture vs. active learning debate. By comparison, lecture is a much more discrete, observable thing. If we stand active learning up against it, then we’ve got a crate of fruit—oranges, bananas, pears, peaches, and grapes—laid out opposite an apple. That makes comparisons and contrasts difficult.

Beyond figuring out how and where the strategies and approaches belong in the active learning domain, is the mostly absent critical analysis of which ones are best. Let’s not imagine a definitively right answer here, but more a sorting of the options with some guidelines that might allow us to determine what strategies fit well with what kinds of content, and what approaches promote learning most effectively for which students.

Even a cursory review of what’s considered to be active learning, makes one feature clear: it engages students individually and collectively to different degrees. In the typical participation exchange where the teacher asks and one student answers, most of the class has not had an active learning experience. But if the teacher asks, and students chat with each other before answering, many more students have been engaged.

That’s pretty straightforward. It’s more complex when we consider that individual students and whole classes of them can be actively engaged at different levels during a single activity or across several of them. We could argue that memorizing facts is an active process even though it might not involve much thinking. That raises the question of the level of active learning needed to influence learning outcomes. What level of involvement or how many active learning events does it take before the effects start showing up in exam scores or in other measurable ways?

This moves us to the thorny issue of measuring active learning. It’s an internal mental state that can’t be seen. We surmise it’s occurring when we see certain behavioral manifestations: if lots of students are participating, if they look like they’re listening, and if they aren’t surfing the web. Beyond observations, active learning can be measured by asking students questions about their learning experiences, such as, “In the courses taken this semester, how many in-class presentations were given?” A question like that works because giving a presentation is pretty tough to do without being actively involved. But what about working with other students on a group project? A student can do that without much involvement, if he or she depends on others in the group to do the work, or if the group as a whole only engages with the task superficially.

What we next need to know about active learning won’t be all that easy to figure out, but it’s time we moved from generic understandings to the specific details.

Bonwell, C. C. and Eison, J. A. 1991. “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D. C. The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Carr, R., Palmer, S., and Hagel, P. 2015. “Active learning: The importance of developing a comprehensive measure.” Active Learning in Higher Education, 16 (3): 173-186.