February 29th, 2012

Questions about Active Learning


What does it take for an activity to qualify as active learning? How we define active learning makes a difference. For example, if participation is a perpendicular exchange where the teacher asks a question and one student answers, we know that one student had an active learning experience. We have to guess whether that exchange engaged other students.

If students are working together to solve a problem and the teacher is available but only asks students questions, chances are good that more than one student in the group is actively thinking and talking about the content. And if any student in the group may be called upon to explain and defend the group’s solution then even more group members are attending to the group’s interaction.

Relevant to answering the first question is the number of students the active learning strategy involves and how deeply it engages them.

How much active learning are teachers using? And the follow-up question: How much active learning is enough? One good result from all the attention paid to active learning during the last 25 years is that teachers now recognize it’s important. More learning and a better kind of learning happens when students are actively engaged with the content. Most, maybe close to all, teachers are in favor of active learning and if you ask whether they use it, pretty much everyone says they do.

However, standing against those claims is a lot of research verifying the most active learner in the majority of classrooms is the teacher. Students are doing things intermittently but not all that regularly and this leads to the second question. How much active learning does it take to start achieving the desirable outcomes that occur when students are actively dealing with the material? One activity per class session? One a week? True, it does depend on the nature of the activity as the example above illustrates, but we need benchmarks. How much and what kinds of active learning should teachers be using?

How does a collection of active learning strategies fit together? I’m also concerned that too often what’s happening in classrooms is activity simply for the sake of activity. Active learning has become something teachers use to keep basically bored students awake and attentive. This puts faculty on a quest to find novel and unusual activities, which isn’t necessarily bad but it can mean that activities aren’t selected and sequenced with some overall plan in mind. It is true that students aren’t going to learn the material unless they’re engaged, but activity doesn’t automatically promote learning or at least not as much as when the selection of activities is guided by some sort of purposeful design. What active learning can accomplish is compromised when it’s nothing more than a collection of techniques used to keep students busy.

We need research answers to these questions—we don’t need more research documenting that active learning makes a difference in what and how students learn. That fact is well established at this point. But I don’t think a blog post is going to have much influence on setting the research agenda. I raise the questions because they are ones individual teachers should be asking.

This post is a call for an analysis of how you use active learning. Start with how you define it. Then look at each of the activities you’re using and ask how many students it involves and how deeply it engages them in the messy work of learning. Are you using enough active learning to make a difference? How do you know? Extra points to those of you who have evidence beyond your general impression. And finally, if your collection of active learning strategies were laid out, would relationships between the individual activities be clear? Would we be able to see how they build toward your learning goals for the course?

And to finish, an FYI… if you are committed to active learning and are interested in thinking more about its role in the learning experiences of your students, I recommend regular reading of an excellent, cross-disciplinary journal devoted to the topic: Active Learning in Higher Education.