What is active learning?
Basic Elements of Active Learning
There are four basic activities through which all students learn, and specific active learning strategies use one or more of these elements.
Talking and Listening
When students talk about a topic, whether answering a teacher's question or explaining a point to another student, they organize and reinforce what they've learned. When they listen, we want to ensure that it's meaningful listening, relating what they hear to what they already know. In a lecture class, students need periodic time away from passive listening in order to absorb what they've heard. And they need reasons to listen, reasons perhaps more immediate than a good grade at the end of the semester. Did the teacher ask a question before the lecture segment that was thought-provoking enough to cause the students to search for the answer in the words that followed? Were they told beforehand that they would have to explain the points in the lecture to a fellow student?
Like talking and active listening, writing provides a means for students to process new information in their own words. It is particularly effective in large classrooms where breaking students into pairs or groups may be prohibitive. It also appeals to individuals who prefer to learn independently.
Students do a great deal of their learning through reading, but they often receive little instruction in how to read effectively. Active learning exercises such as summary and note checks can help students process what they've read and help them develop the ability to focus on important information.
In the all-too-typical lecture class, the lecturer stops talking at the very end of the period. Students gather up their notes and books and run for their next class. One can almost see the knowledge evaporating from their brains. They've had no time to reflect, to connect what they've just learned with what they already know, or to use the knowledge they've gained in any way. Allowing students to pause for thought, to use their new knowledge to teach each other, or to answer questions on the day's topics is one of the simplest ways to increase retention.
Keys to Success
- Be creative! Invent new strategies and adapt existing ones to your needs.
- Start small and be brief.
- Develop a plan for an active learning activity, try it out, collect feedback, then modify and try it again.
- Start from the first day of class and stick with it. Students will come to expect active learning and perform better.
- Be explicit with students about why you are doing this and what you know about the learning process.
- Request students vary their seating arrangements to increase their chances to work with different people. Have students occasionally pair up with the student behind them, since friends often sit side by side.
- Use questions from in class activities on tests. For example, include a short essay question that was used in a think/pair/share.
- Negotiate a signal for students to stop talking.
- Randomly call on pairs to share.
- Find a colleague or two to plan with (and perhaps teach with) while you're implementing active learning activities.
- Continue learning through workshops, reading, and practice.
- Active Learning for the College Classroom, Donald R. Paulson & Jennifer L. Faust.
Describes 29 active learning techniques.
- Active and Cooperative Learning, R.M. Felder.
Links to active/cooperative learning journal articles and websites.
- Scenes from a Classroom: Making Active Learning Work (University of Minnesota, Center for Teaching and Learning Services).
A tutorial with guidelines and keys to success for planning active learning activities. Includes scenarios depicting typical problems and their solutions.
- Active Learning with PowerPoint: University of Minnesota, Center for Teaching and Learning Services).
A tutorial on ways to use active learning strategies with PowerPoint presentations; includes 12 active learning strategies.
- "Active Learning on the Web," Bernie Dodge (San Diego State University).
Ways to use the Internet for active learning.