March 9th, 2016

Active Learning: In Need of Deeper Exploration


students doing lab experiment

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.

  • svenaake

    Thanks. Great start for a discussion on active learning and the engaged student. For a university teacher it is always safe to do the lecture thing. Cover the curriculum and do your job – which is done when you have lectured.
    You don't have to give a rationale when you lecture. The minute you start trying to engage the students in other approaches to learning, you must be prepared to have some answers to critical questions. Many people – teachers at universities included – are not always quite aware of the difference between teaching and learning.

  • Rich

    The division between "active learning" and lecture (the "discrete, observable thing") is not always so clear. Inserting formative assessments like CAT's, calling on students, inserting pair-shares and the like can all occur within the wrapper of a lecture but still be very emotionally and cognitively engaging. To me, that is the starting point: what will enable students to think and feel about something that challenges them and helps them learn. Each "technique" can lend itself to those aims at the right time for the right students. The art is figuring out when and for whom.

  • Johnny

    Professor Weimer, you do a great disservice to educators by suggesting that all lecturing is created equal, and by suggesting that all lecturing is inferior to all "active learning" (which, as you mention, covers a multitude of sins). I have sat in lectures where the instructor has read a PowerPoint presentation verbatim for fifty minutes, and I have sat in lectures where the instructor used only a whiteboard and constantly called on students to recall and connect ideas that were relevant in context. Similarly, I have observed active learning sessions where students were (or at least appeared) engaged in learning, and active learning sessions where students did nothing productive unless the instructor was at their shoulder.

    The debate surrounding lecturing versus active learning is simplistic at best. In spite of the grand conclusions drawn from metastudies of teaching strategies, the statistics are merely averages – they do not limit what can be achieved by lecturing and they do not guarantee the success of active learning.

  • Derek

    Johnny, have you read this article:
    "This study examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning. It defines the common forms of active learning most relevant for engineering faculty and critically examines the core element of each method. It is found that there is broad but uneven support for the core elements of active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning"

    You say that Maryellen says "that all lecturing is inferior to all "active learning" . I'm not sure that she was saying this at all. You may be a victim of the box of fruit problem that was described in the blog post here. You are not comparing guava with guava,


  • Johnny

    You are correct, Prof. Weimer does not say directly that all lecturing is inferior to all active learning. Nor do I make any such claim. My statement was quite deliberately phrased to read "… and by suggesting that …," where I am admittedly recalling Prof. Weimer's opinion of traditional lectures without citation.

    I appreciate Prof. Weimer discussing the need to critically examine active learning (active teaching?) methods, but take exception with the box of fruit analogy used in the blog post – lecturing is an apple, active learning is a whole array of fruits. I do not accept this notion. Lecturing can (and should) be structured to promote active engagement of students. Or to put it another way, some lectures are apples while others are guava.