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.

  • Marae Bailey

    To promote active learning, I give in-class exercises on the day's lecture. For example, let's say the day's lesson is on comma usage. I give a lecture with examples and ask students questions throughout ("Why do you suppose we put the comma here and not there? Do we really need a comma every time we find two adjectives together? How do you know when? etc."). Then, once all the students who want to ask questions have asked, I give an in-class exercise (or several) in which students have to add commas where they are supposed to be. I tell them up front that they get a "free 100" for class participation, but have them keep track of their scores and turn them in so I can tell whether or not most of them understand. With these in-class exercises, students make noticeably fewer errors and therefore have higher grades on graded writing assignments than those who happen to miss the in-class exercises.

  • I run an online masters program in nutrition with class sizes ranging from 20-30 students. We have been experimenting with group work in this context and have been having a lot of problems. As an asynchronous setup, and with students in different time zones too much of their time is spent coordinating schedules rather than working on material. As is often then case, in group work there are always those students who ride on the work of their group members and barely participate. We have used various techniques of assigning roles, adding peer grading/evaluation to the grading rubric etc… but we continue to get complaints on the usefulness of group work. I strongly believe that if done properly group work can stimulate active learning in ways that individual work cannot but the verdict is still up in the air whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs. If anyone has any insights into successful group work I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

  • William Barnes

    I teach a sophomore-level Genetics course, and have found the "clickers" to be transformational. Ideally I stop 2-3 times during a 50-minute class to present a problem. Students are encouraged to work together, and they get 3 points for a correct answer and 2 points for an incorrect answer. This provides enough incentive for engagement, without penalizing wrong answers. I don't have the data to show that learning is actually improved, but it has certainly improved attendance and questions …..

    I haven't yet been shown that either the technology or the bandwidth is in place for online student collaborations. Also, by its very nature, online learning requires active engagement and personal responsibility, and if this isn't present right from the first it fails. I'm not ready to make a finished argument about this, but my hypothesis is that online learning is quite a different beast from a live classroom, and while some techniques will be successful with both, there will be many which don't overlap.

  • I teach an intro to web dev course with a lot of hands work in class. I'm always plagued by wanting to do more and make them more meaningful for students. The two big obstacles are a) working in a group teaching context where it is difficult to get everyone together and reach agreement and b) time. Mostly time. Planning active learning takes much longer, in any discipline, than traditional teaching. And planning good active learning rather than "and now we'll do something to make sure you are awake" is even more time consuming. Yet I'm not convinced that purchases, programmed learning experiences are a lot more valuable for students than the programmed paper-based experiences of the bad old days. There is something about having a teacher engaged in evolving his/her content, term by term, that makes learning a living things rather than a tedious chore for both instructor and student.

  • Marsha Orr

    Our LMS (Moodle) has a Database activity where students can post articles to share with other students. I used an assignment to teach students a clinical activity called "Motivational Interviewing". This technique has been shown by research to be more effective than traditional counselling to change patient behaviors. The assignment involved three stages: introduction to the topic through the use of videos demonstrating a typical exchange between a health care provided and a patient and a second video that illustrated the use of motivational interviewing (MI). In stage 2, the students were asked to find a scholarly reference about MI and post it to share with the class. In stage 3, students were asked to reflect upon how they might use MI in clinical practice including a type of patient situation and some example questions. The reflection was done in a web-based program called VoiceThread where students were able to record their reflection and comment upon other students' reflections. This enabled active learning and discussion in an online format.

  • BCN

    I think there seems to be a conflation of the idea of active learning with verbal/socially engaged learning. Active learning means the mind is grappling with ideas, formulating an answer and a justification. While working with others to articulate, define and defend an idea is the common approach, students can have active learning experiences without peer interaction. For example, I would argue that developing a good written argument – organizing points, interpreting sources – ought to count as active learning just as much as a think-pair-share activity does. As another example, examining data to develop an hypothesis is an active learning experience too. True, all good ideas need to be "tested" against others, but we should be cautious in defining only the interactive component as "active learning. Our challenge, then, should include considering ways to actively engage our students' minds when they are on their own.

  • prof. El-Bahai

    prof El-bahai
    I agree with BCN, I am convinced that “active” learning does not essentially need to be “interactive” learning

  • Amit Shai

    Regarding Maryellen Welmer's first question – the answer was provided indirectly a little later in her article: We know that active learning has occurred when we DON'T have to g-u-e-s-s whether that exchange engaged other students. Engaged students are communicative, enthusiastic about contributing their perspective for as long as it is necessary for them to express themselves clearly, and, finally, they will return to the perspective that enlightened them during the discussion in future classes where they can make the connection (e.g., as in:" Remember last week I talked about [XYZ…]? Here we have an opportunity to revisit this perspective; let me explain how, please, it is very similar,,, :" )
    As for: How much active learning are teachers using? I would guess not too much. Most higher ed teachers I know look for the easy way out ("teach and Leave") — and planning & facilitating active learning take much time and effort (same as student-centered learning). It would take much more work than applying an old "lesson plan" or reuse old handouts like many teachers seem to do frequently. Also, it is hard to "wing it" when planning active learning. Many possible diversions have to be considered in advance. Unfortunately, as a whole, we don't teach our students how to demand quality teaching and we provide them with very little significant means to accompany such a demand in order to make the learning experience effective and successful; one that would lead to “student success”.

  • Hello Dr. Weimer:

    Thank you for providing an excellent article about active learning. You have raised several good points and asked thought-provoking questions.

    One question that caught my attention: How much active learning does it take to start achieving the desirable outcomes that occur when students are actively dealing with the material? In response to that question you talked about the need for benchmarks. Are you advocating a standardized approach or a particular combination of techniques? It seems to me that a variety of techniques need to be implemented as a means of addressing students’ diverse learning styles. Active learning needs to prompt cognitive processing and helping students to reach high-order thinking. Would you agree?

    Dr. J

  • Barbara

    Hello Dr Weimer,
    Thank you so much for this thought provoking article. After reading your article I spent some time analyzing my use of active learning in the classroom and came to the conclusion that I must be doing the majority of the learning as I still do the majority of talking! I especially appreciated your suggestion of a way to improve our skills if we are committed to active learning. I was not previously familiar with the "Active Learning in Higher Education" on line journal. Thank you so much for this suggestion as well.

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