Active learning is an educational approach in which teachers ask students to apply classroom content during instructional activities and to reflect on the actions they have taken. Teachers who employ active learning approaches can have students solve problems, work as part of a team, provide feedback to classmates, or peer-teach as ways to put new content to work. Active learning requires students to operate at high cognitive levels, to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate during instructional tasks. This entry looks at how active learning works and what research says about its outcomes, as well as some criticisms and challenges.
Method and Rationale
When students take notes quietly during a lecture, they are operating as passive learners. Lectures invite student passivity, and research shows that passive students learn less. Lectures are teacher-centered activities that require only the instructor to process the academic content. Active learning approaches, on the other hand, are student centered, requiring students to manipulate academic content during the lesson and placing the teacher in an advisory role. The bottom line in active learning is, in order to learn, students must do more than simply listen. With an active learning approach, teachers design instruction that invites students to take action and to reflect on the skills and/or the knowledge required to complete a task.
Active learning takes a variety of forms because no single application or set of strategies comprises an active learning approach. At a rudimentary level of instructional planning, instructors can ask students to discuss a question with a classmate or to compare notes with a partner during a break in a lecture. Of course, active learning applications can reflect more sophisticated planning as instructors ask students to perform a skit, respond to a case study, or otherwise apply classroom content.
With constructivism as a prevailing theoretical framework in schools, active learning is present in a variety of contexts, particularly in secondary and higher education settings. Biology, chemical engineering, and medical school classrooms are among the array of cross-disciplinary contexts where active learning is increasingly present. Technology affords new opportunities for active learning in classrooms. Wireless laptops hold the promise of increasing opportunities for student-centered lessons. A lecturer can invite students to problem solve independently or in small groups from their seats in the lecture hall, making a computer lab unnecessary.
A handful of well-known instructional approaches fall within the parameters of active learning. Cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and collaborative learning all require students to be the primary manipulators of content during a lesson. Active learning hinges on the consistent benefits of assigning students to small, collaborative groups for solving a problem.