What is active learning?

Posted by Greten on 02 Nov 2019 under Terms

Active learning is a wide range of learning or teaching techniques that require conscious and deliberate actions from learners to facilitate the learning process. The action of the learner can be as simple as pausing to reflect on what they learned a minute ago, up to something that requires more participation, such as experimenting to learn on their own. I said "learning and teaching" because active learning requires effort from both the source (teacher, trainer, instructional designer) and the receiver (student, trainee, learner) of new knowledge and skill.

Active learning is often contrasted with passive learning, a learning process in which the learners are passive recipients of the information. Sitting in a classroom listening to lectures or watching videos are examples of passive learning.

Passive learning is not a bad thing or something to be regarded as inferior to active learning. Although extensive research shows that active learning strategies are better for long term learning and retention, a good mixture of the two can be useful. You can think of passive learning as another modality or set of modalities, through which you can facilitate the learning process of the same topics that the learners already encountered or will encounter later with more active methods. In general, it is better for learning to present a topic in several different modalities.

Active learning techniques

There are several ways through which a teacher or instructional designer can facilitate active learning. Based on the definition above, there is no clear divide between active learning and passive learning techniques, only a spectrum of techniques that sits between more passive and more active. Our earlier examples of passive learning, lecture, and watching videos still require certain conscious and deliberate actions from the learner, such as watching, listening, and staying in focus.

A double-ended arrow with words passive learning on left end and active learning on the right end. Vertical segments are attached to the arrows. Each segment ends with the following words from left to right: pause for reflection, minute paper, group discussion, case studies, interactive lecture, hands-on, inquiry learning, experiential learningThere are several other active learning techniques that I will no longer discuss here. The illustration above shows different learning techniques and where they lie in the passive-active spectrum. A more extensive list is prepared by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching of University of Michigan. Some of the active learning techniques are:

  • Pauses between passive learning sessions to have the learners reflect on what they just learned. Sometimes, the reflection is guided by an open-ended question as "Recall a past experience where you used ________." or "Think of ways you can apply _________ and write them down."
  • Group discussion after a passive learning session so that students can learn from one another. The same guide questions above can guide them. You can also have an additional guide question that can work in group settings like "Explain how you understand the lesson and share it with your peers." This allows each learner to see the lesson in a different context and reinforce it through additional learning modalities.
  • Interactive lecture is similar to passive learning, except that there are interactive elements throughout the lesson. Guided questions and simple activities are embedded at certain points during the lecture, either to reinforce the parts already discussed or to introduce the topics that are about to be discussed. Interactive lectures are popular and excellent models for elearning modules due to several different ways a learner can interact with their computer and other electronic devices.
  • Inquiry learning is a series of questions asked to learners to guide them to a conclusion that is the most crucial learning point of the lesson. Thus, inquiry learning usually comes before the lecture. Examples of inquiry learning are asking learners to recall an experience, through which they can see a pattern. It could also be a battery of exercises from the previous lesson that the learners can use to derive a conclusion that forms the core of the next lesson. An example is a battery of multiplication exercises that includes nine and another number to allow the student to derive the divisibility rule for nine.
  • Hands-on is very important if the objective is to learn skills in using tools, machines, or software programs. The lectures on how to use them will be pointless if the learners do not get to try to use them.

Do not try to make lessons "more active" by shifting all the work to the learners. Instead, design the learning process to include more active learning.

Benefits of active learning

SIlhouette of a head with several gears, a bulb, and a cloud inside.Since there are several active learning techniques, the learners cannot obtain all of these benefits from just one of the techniques. Some of the benefits your learners can obtain from active learning are:

  • Better retention: the learner didn't just have to remember absorbing the lesson while sitting, watching, and listening. They can also remember what equipment they used, who are the peers they worked with, and the thought process they used to arrive at a piece of particular information. All of these create more connections in the network of interconnected knowledge, memories, and experience; this makes the binding of the new learning stronger within the memory and its retrieval easier.
  • Challenge: active learning allows for the immediate application of new knowledge. This quickly moves the knowledge from theoretical to actual or practical.
  • Confirmation: learners can appreciate the learning more when they can immediately test the knowledge, concepts, and processes they just learned. They can quickly discover what does and doesn't work, or what works only in specific ways, and correct any misconceptions that they might have formed earlier.
  • Feedback: active learning allows learners to immediately assess how much they already learned and how much they still need to learn. They can figure at which stage of learning they currently are.

To get most if not all benefits of active learning, do not think in terms of using only active learning techniques. Instead, use different learning techniques across the active-passive spectrum. An optimal combination of these techniques and their suitability to the topic or skill you are imparting to learners should form the core of your instructional design strategy.


Last updated on 02 Nov 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning