Introduction to Active Learning

In the following guide, you’ll find a brief introduction to some of the theories, techniques, and assumptions of an active learning classroom.

What is active learning?

In many traditional college classrooms, instructors lecture and students listen. Or, in some cases, instructors ask questions to a small group of enthusiastic / outgoing / motivated students who answer them while everyone else watches. The professor already knows the answers to the questions, because the professor is assumed to be the (only) expert in the room. The job of the student is to absorb the professor’s expertise.

This is what the educator and philosopher, Paolo Freire1, referred to as the “banking model” of education, which is illustrated in this graphic (web link).

In the banking model, students are mostly passive recipients of knowledge. Visible evidence of learning happens outside of class, when students synthesize the material on their own: perhaps through homework, tutoring, projects, studying, or paper writing. Learning is then evaluated by a high-stakes test like a midterm and a final exam.

In an active learning classroom, students are active co-constructors of knowledge. While the instructor may still be the content expert, she relies on frequent student feedback in order to decide what still needs to be taught, reviewed, or reexamined. This feedback guides future instruction, rather than a preexisting idea about what content needs to be “covered,” because there is an assumption that there’s a difference between content coverage and student learning.

Class time might involve giving students frequent, “low-stakes” assignments, peer instruction, reflective activities, writing-to-learn exercises, collaborative or cooperative learning, or other methods that make learning as visible as possible and that encourage students to frequently confront the gaps in their understanding.

What’s the theory behind active learning?

Active learning is based in a theory of learning called constructivism. There are a few different types of constructivism, but the general idea is that learning happens through the learner’s active construction of knowledge rather than through the passive reception of someone else’s knowledge.

Learning also happens by connecting new material to something that we already know, and becoming aware of the connections that we’re making.

Social constructivists2 believe that what we know is greatly shaped by our particular social and cultural contexts. Students (and instructors!) bring misconceptions, previous positive and negative learning experiences, cultures, biases, ideas, anxieties, and motivations to the classroom with them.

So, in an active learning classroom based on a social constructivist model, students frequently work together and teach each other because it is assumed that they bring valuable ways of knowing and being into the learning context that professors cannot solely provide. Peer teaching can play an important role, because the responsibility of teaching and learning is more evenly distributed throughout the classroom community. There are more opportunities for students to learn from someone other than the instructor, and the instructor also learns from students, while helping them to learn from each other.

But I learned math through listening to lectures and I hated group work! Why should I make my classes active?

Using an active learning approach doesn’t mean that you always have to use group work. In fact, group work, like any other method, can be ineffective if expectations are not well communicated, if the activity is either too demanding or not sufficiently challenging, if students are not held accountable, or if a supportive and affirming classroom culture has not been sufficiently fostered.

However, group work is also just one of many strategies that an instructor can use in an active classroom. Sometimes students work in pairs or do individual work. Lecturing is also still possible in an active classroom: it’s just supplemented with several activities that are designed to gather feedback from students so that the evidence of learning and engagement is made more visible.

It’s not as if learning cannot or never happens in a passive lecture setting: of course it does. It’s perfectly possible for students to learn things by listening to a professor talk.

However, it’s equally possible for a student to entirely check out of a lecture or to think that they understand something when, in fact, they don’t.

In traditional lectures, what a student is learning (or what they’re not learning) is not made very visible to anyone: even to the student. So learning generally takes places outside of the classroom rather than both inside AND outside.

Here’s a concrete example of this. Think about the last time that you played a new card game with very unfamiliar rules. Did you learn more by hearing a lengthy explanation of the rules before you started to play, or by starting to play and then getting corrected by a more experienced player when you made a mistake?

Think, also, about what frequently happens when someone who is really good with technology teaches someone who is less comfortable with technology how to do something new. Too often, the “teacher” has a difficult time understanding what could possibly be so difficult about something that he does every day. The “student,” who may be very timid or uncomfortable, often becomes frustrated and demotivated by rapid and confusing explanations that seem to skip multiple steps.

In these two learning contexts, it’s likely that you needed to try something and to make small mistakes with it in order to learn. In the technology example, it’s also likely that you might have benefited from listening to an explanation from someone who had more recently learned how to do something and who would explain the steps that had become “invisible” to the teacher.

What if my students just aren’t interested in doing their work? It’s not me who needs to change: it’s them.

It’s important to remember that teachers are often very comfortable with our own knowledge of our subject. We were probably also very strong students of our subject. And hopefully, we were (and are) also fascinated by the subject, and that fascination led us to be very motivated to learn more about it.

But when we teach, we have to account for all of the students in our class: especially the ones who are timid, uncomfortable, frustrated, or demotivated by our topic or by previous learning experiences with it. We should also remember that the school context frequently asks students to hide their frustration, intimidation, and discomfort, or to convert these things into what look like resistance, apathy, or “laziness,” since these can be less vulnerable postures to assume.

By making more student learning visible and fostering a supportive, collaborative classroom environment, we’re better equipped to check in with more than just the seven active students at the front of the lecture hall. In its best moments, active learning helps instructors to put students in the position to actively construct their knowledge, to create the conditions for students to teach one another, and to see themselves as part of a larger community of learners. This helps a lot of students to gain the confidence and the support that they need.

More questions about active learning? Visit our Frequently Asked Questions section here (web link).

More questions about how to use the plans? Visit our Using the Plans section here (web link).

1 Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. 20th Anniversary edition. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1993.

2 For more information on social constructivism, visit this web link.