February 9th, 2011

Defining Active Learning

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There’s a definitional “looseness” about many of the terms commonly used in higher education. I know, I’ve written about this in previous blogs, but when terms are bandied about assuming everybody defines them similarly, that’s a recipe for misunderstanding. Equally important, we can be using terms without having done the intellectual homework necessary to precisely understand their referents.

Case in point: active learning. Not so long ago in a workshop discussion, I asked for definitions. I gave participants a couple of minutes to think or jot notes. Here’s some of what I got, “students doing” “activities that engage students” “passive learning is an oxymoron” “teaching that gets student involved with the content” “when students participate or do group work.” Although similar, I would say that all those descriptors are different. None of them are bad or wrong; most of them are pretty superficial when compared to a definition like the one for active learning that appears in The Greenwood Dictionary of Education.

Greenwood defines active learning as “The process of having students engage in some activity that forces them to reflect upon ideas and how they are using those ideas. Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems in a particular discipline. The attainment of knowledge by participating or contributing. The process of keeping students mentally, and often physically, active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking and problem solving.”

I’m not proposing this as the “right” “best” or “only” definition for active learning, but I am proposing that it’s a good deal more specific than most of us would offer. Now, if we sat down and thought about active learning, if we talked about it with colleagues, I’m pretty sure that the definitions we’d develop would rival this one. But my point is we can regularly use terms like this without having done that careful thinking.

Carefully crafted learning experiences
There are some things about this definition that I do like. Sometimes we think active learning is “activity for the sake of activity” without being mindful that it’s equally about what students are doing. According to this definition they are engaged in activities designed to encourage reflection, designed to confront them with their knowledge and skill levels and designed to get them interacting with information. That’s not just any old activity—that’s a carefully crafted learning experience.

Most faculty know that active learning is important even though many still lecture pretty much exclusively. Most will even go so far as to admit that students learn better when they are active, not passive. And almost all faculty report that they use active learning. But I’m hoping this discussion is making clear that there is active learning and then there is active learning.

Student engagement exists along a continuum. I think the Greenwood definition is active learning at a highly engaged and highly effective level. The nice thing about a continuum is that things can be moved along it. So, if you don’t have time at the moment to create one of those carefully crafted learning experiences, you can take an active learning strategy you currently use, say participation, and make it more active. You can do that by asking a good, thought provoking question, following it with 30 seconds of silence and follow that with two minutes during which students share their thoughts with each other before discussing the answer with the whole class. Or, you could pause after presenting a chunk of content and tell students you don’t intend to proceed until they’ve asked at least two questions about the material. You might jot those questions on the board, type them into the computer and then let the class take a crack at answering. Write down the essence of their answers and then discuss the merits of their various replies.

Now it’s your turn. What are some ways you promote active learning in your classes? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.