February 9th, 2011

Defining Active Learning


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.

  • Geeta

    Very interesting points. Yes, active learner participation is critical. In my opinion, active learning is also about keeping learning an 'active' process for the learners. Therefore, there has to be ways to make learning sustainable. Most academic learning is confined to the classroom and at the most to homework/assignments outside the classroom.

    Active learning should be about making learning relevant to their life-experiences or future work experiences – students should be able to apply this learning when they work, view others at work, watch movies, documentaries, television, or hear about others experiences. This can help them relate well to things that they are learning and also give them more sustained mechanisms of retaining learning longer.

  • Laine


    Meaningful learning, not rote mode learning, is a responsibility for each student. However, the professor can take an active roll in this by presentingin a conceptual manner with concept maps, asking students to convert reading materials or lecture notes into concept maps, using cmaps for brainstorming, etc. People who actively engage in the use of cmapping (not mind mapping or webbing, very very different!) retain up to 85% more information/concepts even after two years of having first seen that information. Very Powerful!!!

  • Kieran D

    In my intro Web tech courses (content at http://coredogs.com), students get dozens of exercises. Each exercise is related to course outcomes (echoing Geeta's comment about relevance). Students get feedback about their solutions, ranging from "Great!" to a conversation about how they could improve. This helps students "regularly assess their own degree of understanding" from the Greenwood definition.

    IMHO, "crafting learning experiences" is exactly the right way to think about it. Different experiences produce different outcomes. Learning science research shows that doing exercises and getting formative feedback helps students build skills. So, when skill building is a desired outcome (as it is in intro Web tech and other STEM courses), offer those experiences.

    (A challenge in a feedback-heavy course is not increasing teaching workload. But that can be done with an efficient feedback workflow.)


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  • Derek

    One of my favourite comments was from Donald Simenek: as far as learning goes, "Nothing works unless the students work"

  • Andrew

    Active engagement of the learner is very important. What some instructors fail to realize is that the activity should support the fulfillment of the objective(s)for the learning unit or course. Having an activity just for the sake of keeping someone's attention is not true active engagement. Unfortunately many instructors think as long as they have the students' attention, they are actively engaging students.

  • Sal

    This is a very important concept. We all grasp something when we are an active part of it. I think that active learning is being involved in discovery and accomplishment. Perhaps the best ways I've seen to do this are through group work and the Socratic method of lecturing.

  • bernard

    I teach a 300 level course in medical sociology. For me active learning involves each student taking responsibility for a relevant topic that interests them , researching the topic and presenting the topic to the class, then incorporating substantive feedback from their class-mates (and instructor) as part of their final presentation.

  • Pat

    I personally ask the question, "Why are we doing this? or Why is this relevant?" I find if participants can answer the "why" question they are reflecting and learning.

  • Maryellen

    Great comments! Thanks for adding to the conversation. I really appreciated Geeta’s notion that active learning should be sustainable–that it should not end when the activity or assignment is over but should still be part of a student’s mental activity. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think it’s right on the money. I also really liked Derek’s one-line about nothing works unless the students work. It reminded me of John Biggs questions about who’s working doing the work in your classroom. If the teacher is the one doing most or all of the work and the students are sitting passively, then the teacher is probably the only one having an active learning experience.
    Thanks again for making this blog post a conversation.

  • James Powell

    I present briefly Eliade's core notion of the "sacred"…a sacred center, superheroes, creation myths, anti-heros, the role of women, the afterlife…then I have students invent their own religion applying these concepts. I have gotten silly things like "McDonaldsism" and "Packerism" but the point is, this kind of peer-to-peer assessment works nicely to get them collaborating on applying these insights. They love it!

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