March 27th, 2012

Five Key Principles of Active Learning


A review of the research on active learning compiled for physiology faculty contains five “key findings” that author Joel Michael maintains ought “to be incorporated [into] our thinking as we make decisions about teaching physiology [I would say, name your discipline] at any educational level.” (p. 160) Here’s the list, along with a brief discussion of each.

1. Learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner. This well-established principle involves the fact that students link new information with information that they already know. New and old information are assembled into mental models. If the old information is faulty, that compromises the learning of new information. “Learning can be thought about as a process of conceptual change in which faulty or incomplete models are repaired.” (p. 161) Fixing faulty mental models can be very difficult, as witnessed by research documenting that even after taking a course (physics is often used as an example), students still hold serious misconceptions.

2. Learning facts and learning to do something are two different processes. This explains why students can know a set of facts and still be unable to apply those facts to solve a problem. If students are to successfully use knowledge, they must have opportunities to practice and obtain feedback. A variety of other instructional advice follows from this principle, including the fact that students who are learning to solve problems need to know more than whether the answer is right or wrong. The sequence of problems from easy to hard is also important. Students should only move to harder problems as they improve. Moving students too fast or before they are ready compromises their efforts to learn.

3. Some things that are learned are specific to the domain or context (subject matter or course) in which they are learned, whereas other things are more readily transferred to other domains. What’s at issue here is knowledge transfer and whether students can take what they know about one subject or topic and transfer that knowledge to another subject or topic. As many college teachers have observed, students often have great trouble with this. There are still a number of research controversies in this area, but there is growing recognition that transfer involves skills that students need to be taught.

4. Individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others than when they learn alone. Many faculty are very independent learners and so struggle a bit with accepting this principle. However, it is based on “impressive results” in different disciplines “that support the power of getting students to work together to learn.” (p. 162)

5. Meaningful learning is facilitated by articulating explanations, whether to one’s self, peers, or teachers. Students learn to speak the languages of disciplines when they practice speaking those languages. That’s part of what this principle involves, but it is also true that articulating an answer, an idea, or a level of understanding aids in learning. The speaking or writing makes clear to the learner what they do and don’t understand, and/or their understanding deepens as they frame a description that is meaningful to them.

Like any set of principles, these are general statements that, in this case, cover large, complex research areas. They are a useful means of getting a broad perspective. Decisions about instructional practices can certainly be based upon them. However, one should not read the principles and assume an in-depth understanding of the complicated phenomenon called learning.

Editor’s note: I just recently discovered this very impressive review of research on active learning. What we call active learning (and we aren’t always clear about the definition) involves a messy, disorganized research domain. As this author points out, there is not one definitive study that proves the efficacy of active learning, but there is instead a “multiplicity of sources of evidence” that makes an argument for active learning “compelling.” (p. 165). This is the second review I’ve discovered of the research on active learning. Both were prepared for discipline-based audiences but are eminently useful to all of us. Both are well worth reading and keeping in one’s library of essential pedagogical resources. I still refer people to the Prince review we highlighted several years back and will now add the Michael review to my recommendations.

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30, 159-167.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 223-231.

Reprinted from Learning: Five Key Principles. The Teaching Professor, 25.3 (2011): 2.