Active learning places the student at the center of the instructional process. Instead of students merely hearing information, memorizing it, and then repeating facts on a test, they scrutinize the learning material through analytical writing, posing and answering questions, group discussions, and problem-solving exercises. Active learning triggers critical thinking skills and demands students be invested in their own education by constantly evaluating what they are learning.
Looking at the concept in the context of Bloom’s Taxonomy, active learning pushes students from the lower levels of the learning pyramid (remembering and understanding facts) up through the middle levels (applying the instruction in new situations and then analyzing and drawing connections between ideas) to the top of the taxonomy: evaluating and justifying a decision, and, finally, producing original work.
Through its core emphasis on student engagement, active learning’s ultimate goal is to have students become analytical and creative thinkers. Rather than being receptacles of data, they evaluate facts and develop their own ideas based on that information.
Active learning isn’t a new concept. The groundbreaking 1987 article Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, written by professors Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, lays out the basic premise of active learning.
“Learning is not a spectator sport,” the authors write. “Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”
What are the core principles of active learning?
Active learning instruction exhibits these three essential elements:
1. Active learning is student powered. Active learning flips the traditional — and passive — teacher-led classroom; it requires students to become involved and engaged participants in the learning process.
In a traditional college course, students may receive a syllabus of required books they’ll be asked to read and later summarize on a comprehension test. But in active learning, students are asked to reflect on what they’ve read and form questions or arguments based on the material. They are expected to actively engage with the information and link it to their own experiences and thoughts.
Active learning can begin before the class starts. Instructors can provide students with a list of questions to answer during an upcoming lecture. Or, during a lecture, the instructor can ask them to write a question or compose a “minute paper” based on the material. Prior to a session, instructors can post questions based on assigned readings, which students will then discuss during class or answer on the course website. These methods ensure students actively engage with the content at all times, while also making them accountable for their own learning.
2. Active learning is interactiveand collaborative. In an active learning classroom, students and teachers frequently interact. During a lecture, the teacher may pause to pose a question or ask students to write a brief summary of what they’ve heard. Or, the teacher may have them pair up or form groups to consider a particular problem.
An active learning classroom fosters continual feedback from instructors and peers. This feedback isn’t confined to the classroom, however; with today’s digital tools, students and instructors can interact outside the classroom via forums and other online methods. In that way, active learning can be both interpersonal and asynchronous.
3. Active learning promotes critical thinking. Active learning emphasizes problem-solving skills, critical analysis, and competency mastery. When developed using good instructional design — which begins with the intended outcomes in mind — it flows from the ultimate goal of having students deeply understand and apply what they have learned.
Decision-making activities and case studies build critical thinking skills by asking students to consider a real-life problem and then produce possible solutions. Activities push them to seek new information, consider fresh ideas, and weigh the impact of their decisions.
How to incorporate active learning in instructional design
Successful instructional design originates from the incorporation of three elements, or the “course design triangle”: clear and measurable learning objectives, content and activities, and assessments.
One of the first steps to nurturing active learning is to develop a “learner-centered” mindset. Marsha Lovett is director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, and Chief Learning Scientist at Acrobatiq. She writes in an EdSurge article that instructors need to give up the practice of “teaching in the first person.”
One of the fundamental principles of making that shift, she says, is remembering that “learning is a change process, not a content-delivery process.” Create opportunities for practice with targeted and timely feedback, and you will put your students — and their activity — at the center of learning.
The skill graph is a useful tool for designing courses around active learning because it ensures that students can master and demonstrate particular skills. A skills graph works by requiring tight alignment between course objectives, content, and what students are actually doing. It also establishes a foundation for assessing progress.
All these instructional design elements have one thing in common: Students are involved in furthering their own education. Active learning not only thrusts students into the forefront of the learning process, it enhances retention and learning outcomes as well. Numerous studies have documented this phenomenon, which will be explored in a future article.
Learn how to design instruction that incorporates active learning activities by visiting our resources library.
Maria Wood is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in business reporting, finance, education and technology.