Active learning represents a range of strategies that engage learners in meaningful activities and require learners to think about what they are doing
What is the problem?
Have you ever sat through a workshop, class or presentation where the person facilitating the session doesn't seem to be aware of whether you're there or not and when you’d like to engage there perhaps is no real opportunity to do so? In such instances, you may often find you leave the session with feelings of frustration around time lost, not learning anything and questions unanswered. Unfortunately, many students today find themselves in just such a scenario where the more traditional didactic ‘chalk and talk approaches to teaching are still quite prevalent especially in the higher education sector.
Traditional lectures where the instructor does the majority of the talking and learners assume a more passive role are environments that reveal low levels of concentration and attention deficits (Stuart and Rutherford, 1978). There is evidence that traditional or transmission-based lecture courses yield low gains in understanding (Howard, Meehan and Parnell, 2019) (Halloun and Hestenes, 1985) and consequently there are concerns about the quality of the learning that results.
The traditional lecture no longer meets the needs of our Generation Z students who are:
- Financially focused
- Technology savvy
- Independent learners
Why Active Learning?
Active learning strategies can support these students and allows lecturers to meet the students where they are at as opposed to where we as lectures are at. There is a huge body of research to support the value of interactive learning over passive learning, e.g.:
- A recent report on active learn in higher education presents the results of a study on the potential of active learning to foster skilled professionals, critical and creative thinkers, and engaged citizens. It states
Active learning can provide a valuable contribution to implementing a cooperative institutional vision of learning and teaching in higher education, which educates active, well-educated, well-rounded and responsible, global citizen. (Christersson and Staaf, 2019)
- A study which explores teaching excellence from the student perspective identifies the following characteristics of an “unmissable” lecture (Revell and Wainwright, 2009):
- A high degree of student participation and interaction
- A clear structure which enabled students to identify key points and make integrative links with other areas of the course
- The passion and enthusiasm of the lecturer, and the degree to which she/he can bring a subject to life.
- A recent book (Hattie and Zierer, 2017) defines ten behaviours or mindframes that teachers need to adopt in order to maximize student success, which includes:
- engaging in dialogue and the correct balance between talking and listening;
- building positive relationships.
From the student perspective, active learning encourages students to be more independent and take responsibility for to their own learning - this autonomy increases motivation and engagement. It helps students to gain a deeper understanding of the content and empowers students to interact with the content and each other in a more authentic way. In addition, it can help students develop meaningful friendships develop networking, listening, negotiating, feedback and other key teamwork skills.
From the lecturer point of view this creates a positive learning environment that allows for those “aha moments”. The time where you see the penny drop for the student. It also increases engagement in the content/assessment and therefore makes teaching more satisfying and worthwhile. Active learning also builds positive relationships with students and results in a more collaborative approach to learning.
What is Active Learning?
Active learning is an umbrella term for the use of methodologies and strategies that actively involve students in the learning process. Active Learning places the responsibility for learning on the learner.
Active Learning requires more than a student simply listening as a teacher explains an aspect of their subject’s content although there is obviously room for this as well. As active learners students must also read, write, discuss and/ or be engaged in solving problems during lessons. Most importantly, to be active while reading, writing, speaking and listening students should also be engaging in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Essentially, active learning is anything that gets students interacting with each other and engaging with the lecture material (Revell and Wainwright, 2009)
Active Learning can take many forms. For example, the following diagram shows a typical teaching plan for a class where active learning strategies are to be deployed and is based on the notion of chunking (Moss, 2020), i.e. breaking a lecture up into distinct chunks or sections, which is based on cognitive load theory, i.e. that the brain can only process a small amount of new information at once, so by not overloading working memory we can significantly increase the potential for learning.
Active learning represents a range of strategies that engage learners in “meaningful activities” and require learners to “think” about what they are “doing”. It involves things like discussion, problem solving, presentations, group work, brainstorming, debates, etc. Essentially, anything that gets students interacting with each other and engaging with the lecture (Hattie and Zierer, 2017). The use of active learning creates an environment where the lecturer is a facilitator of learning rather than a presenter of information (O’Neill and McMahon, 2005)
Examples of Active Learning Strategies
From a lecturer’s perspective, the following active learning strategies require very little in terms of advance organisation on their part but can still have a huge impact on students.
- Reciprocal Questioning - have students produce questions on a recent lesson concept and pose this question to their peers.
- Embrace the Pause - take a break every 10 to 15 minutes so that students have time to discuss, ask questions or solve problems.
- The Golden Nugget - at the end of class, ask students to identify the main “nugget” of information they took from the lecture and how this might relate to their future studies.
- One Minute Paper - students are given 60 seconds to write down a response to a question you pose
- The Muddiest Point - during class or at the end of class, students are given time to write down what aspect of the lesson they found most challenging.
- KWL -students write down what they Know about the content. Students write down what they Want to know. After the lecture students write down what they have Learned.
If you would like to find out more about active learning strategies you might find the following useful:
- K. Patricia Cross Academy – a site which offers free instructional videos and downloadable resources to help educators with improving students' learning as well as their own teaching.
- Advance HE’s “#52etc toolkit - a ‘high-impact - low tech’ resource that is readily accessible, practical and specifically directed to enhancing student engagement which has been specifically developed for any taught environment, whether that is face to face, online or blended. For more Information see:
What do I need to implement these Active Learning Strategies?
If you plan to incorporate Active Learning strategies in your teaching then some advance organisation is necessary. In many cases, in a face-to-face setting, all that’s needed are simply pens and paper/post-it notes, etc., but you could, if you are comfortable enough with technology, try using tools like:
- Audience Response Systems, e.g:
- Interactive Whiteboards or Noticeboards, e.g.:
These technologies can also be used in a remote setting however don’t forget you can also use some of the built in features of Zoom, MTU Cork’s tool of choice for live e-learning and communication, if you don’t want to overcomplicate things for yourself or your students, i.e.:
- Whiteboard & Annotation
For advice and guidance on which technologies might best suit your needs, please talk to our colleagues in the Department of Technology Enhanced Learning .
Many of the papers mentioned below can be found here:
- Christersson, C. and Staaf, P. (2019) Promoting active learning in universities: Thematic Peer Group Report, Learning & Teaching.
- Felder, R. M. and Brent, R. (2009) ‘Active Learning: An Introduction’, ASQ Higher Education Brief.
- Halloun, I. A. and Hestenes, D. (1985) ‘The initial knowledge state of college physics students’, American Journal of Physics, 53. doi: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.14030.
- Hattie, J. and Zierer, K. (2017) 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teaching for Success. Routledge. Available at: https://kforinas.pages.iu.edu/Argentina/Articulos/fci.pdf (Accessed: 22 January 2021).
- Moss, P. G. (2020) Chunking Lectures – it’s a bit of a no-brainer.
- O’Neill, G. and McMahon, T. (2005) Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers. Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching, 1.
- Revell, A. and Wainwright, E. (2009) ‘What makes lectures “unmissable”? Insights into teaching excellence and active learning’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), pp. 209–223. doi: 10.1080/03098260802276771.
- Stuart, J. and Rutherford, R. J. D. (1978) ‘Medical Student Concentration During Lectures’, The Lancet, 312(8088), pp. 514–516. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(78)92233-X.