active learning in the classroom November 7, 2017

Active Learning: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology


In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that require students not only to do something, but also to think about what they have done. Moreover, many faculty have already incorporated into their teaching activities associated with active learning, such as interactive lectures, collaborative learning groups, and discussion-related writing tasks.

However, faculty may not be aware that, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the meaning of active learning is slightly different. According to cognitive psychology, active learning involves the development of cognition, which is achieved by acquiring "organized knowledge structures" and "strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems." (This particular definition is from a cognitive psychology text edited by Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School.) Additionally, active learning entails a process of interpretation, whereby new knowledge is related to prior knowledge and stored in a manner that emphasizes the elaborated meaning of these relationships.

Faculty interested in promoting this cognitively oriented understanding of active learning can do so by familiarizing their students with such cognitive active learning strategies as activating prior knowledge, chunking, and practicing metacognitive awareness.

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students working on a problem in class October 2, 2017

Incorporating Principles in Cognitive Psychology to Improve Student Learning


At the 2017 STEM FIT Symposium at Washington University in St. Louis, Mark McDaniel, PhD, Professor, Psychological & Brain Sciences, co-director of CIRCLE, and co-author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), presented a plenary address on how research in cognitive psychology can support effective teaching practices and improve learning. Supported by laboratory and field experiments, many of the techniques McDaniel presented from the book can be applied to most academic subjects in order to promote student learning.

Henry L. Roediger, McDaniel’s co-author, previously grouped many of these same techniques into three general principles to enhance educational practice (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). Each principle offers an opportunity to consider how to incorporate research-supported practices for sustained learning. Brief summaries of the three general principles are listed below. I have also included a few examples found within the literature of how you may incorporate these principles into your teaching: