Active Learning: Theories and Research

      by: Jill Beloff Farrell

Jill Beloff Farrell is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Barry University. In this article, she surveys the literature on active learning to provide conceptual underpinnings, and provides both historical context and a look forward into the information age.

The challenge of writing an article on active learning is found in the complexity, yet simplicity, of this newly described form of learning and teaching across educational settings from early childhood through higher education. An active and exhaustive search of the literature reveals a range of meanings and applications both historical and contemporary. Conceptually, active learning implies deep learning on the part of the student as they construct knowledge and create meaning from their surroundings. In educational contexts applications of active learning range from focusing activities to cooperative structures to the active engagement of thinking processes in the learning and application of knowledge. While active learning as a vehicle to enhance the quality of student learning has become the latest buzzword, the question has arisen as to whether the application of active learning has continued to achieve its intentions and potential (Haack, 2008).

Learning, a word and concept used exhaustively and interchangeably within our culture, is one of the most complex and least understood constructs within education. Learning, and the conditions in which it occurs, is dependent on multiple variables, as well as contexts. According to Dewey (1938), traditional views of learning posit that learning occurs through the transfer of information from knowledgeable sources, such as textbooks or elders; from one who is more informed, to the passive recipient, where it is stored along with other information, until drawn upon for a particular purpose.

In classrooms, opportunities for learning are determined, to a large extent, by teachers’ notions of how children learn, and by the activities and experiences offered to the learner.

Due to the ever-accelerating pace of a changing and uncertain world, to be successful today’s learners must be equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge needed to master interconnected forces of speed, complexity and uncertainty. This means learning faster, analyzing situations logically and solving problems creatively. Additionally, younger learners have had exposure to technology from an early age, making them “digital natives” who process information in a random access manner, rather than in a linear way (Prensky, 2001). Thus, our definition of literacy has expanded from an emphasis on comprehension of page text and listening to lectures to the need for a broader set of skills that requires more activity-based competencies across a wide range of subjects and disciplines.

Contemporary views of learning, as put forth by the National Research Council’s approach to the new science of learning, recognize the importance of allowing children to take control of their own learning by engaging in active learning, meta-cognition and transfer of knowledge (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). This newer approach to learning favors curriculum methods and materials designed to allow students to apply concepts being learned to real-world contexts, build local and global communities of practice, and allow opportunities for learning in and out of the classroom (Huffaker & Calvert, 2003).

Many twenty-first century classrooms have started to move toward a philosophical orientation to teaching that favors more active learning, allowing students to be active constructors of their own and others’ knowledge (Ellerman, 1999). Active learning, a participatory form of educating students where the teacher creates conditions so that students can take charge of their own learning, moves the learner beyond the role of passive listener and note taker. Prince (2004) considers any instructional method that engages students in the learning process as active learning. According to Bonwell & Eison (1991), active learning involves students in doing things and in thinking about what they are doing.

Active learning is certainly not a new construct in education. Historically, active learning was most likely the first form of education used in a hunter/gatherer society where the youngest members of the society learned to survive while watching and mimicking their elders. One of the earliest documented forms of active learning, the Socratic Method, occurred in ancient Greece, and is attributed to Socrates. Throughout the centuries other educational philosophers such as Rosseau (1762), Dewey (1933), Piaget (1951), and Kolb (1984) have advocated for learning through play, practical and sensory experiences to promote complex intellectual constructs and abstract reasoning. Many forms of active learning have been used in P-12 settings for decades, and most experienced and effective teachers will find that they are already using variations on this concept. In the last several decades, active learning has been promoted in higher education settings, where students have often been found to struggle with focusing on lectures and lose attention during the duration of a class. In one such study, Johnson, Johnson, & Smith (1991) surmised that when students were passive recipients during lectures, the acquisition of facts took precedence over the development of higher cognitive processes, such as analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.

Active learning includes a variety of teaching methods such as small group discussion, cooperative learning, role playing, hands-on projects, and teacher driven questioning. Authors calling for a combination of teaching approaches to stimulate learning in students with different learning styles, advocate active learning techniques which include the visual, auditory and kinesthetic aspects of learning. Simmons & DiStasi (2008) describe active learning activities that require students to use a variety of learning techniques, promote retention of large amounts of information, and encourage greater social interaction through peer discussion. Teachers across a wide range of subjects and grade levels are proposing and using active learning strategies, recognizing that by allowing students to be involved in their own learning they are encouraging them to take greater responsibility for their own education. In the active learning classroom, the teacher’s role is to talk less and facilitate more by setting up situations and experiences that allow students to be immersed in the material with their peers, while socially constructing greater understanding of the curriculum

Teaching strategies that promote active learning have five common elements. These include, 1) student involvement beyond mere listening; 2) more emphasis on the development of skills and less on transmittal of information; 3) student involvement in higher order thinking skills; 4) student involvement in activities, such as reading, discussing, writing; and 5) an emphasis on students’ exploration of values and attitudes (Bonwell & Eison, 1991).

Learning is situated in physical, social, and interactive contexts, and is best achieved when learners have varied and multiple opportunities to engage in inquiry at many different levels (Henderson & Antencio, 2007). It is a process involving children’s perceptions, related encoding, and subsequent retrieval of information leading to modifications in future behaviors and attitudes. Since learning is social, it is oftentimes generated through dialogue with others and in reflection with others. In young children, learning is facilitated through their observations of others’ actions and the subsequent replication of the behaviors observed into their own schemata. Learning can be augmented through a range of experiences throughout one’s lifetime, and involves a number of individuals, ranging from parents, siblings, peers, teachers and others who serve in coaching and mentoring roles.

Learning is situated in cultures. In the culture of the classroom setting, where knowledge is socially constructed and integrated into the life of the learning community, active learning strategies can engage students more and enhance their learning, thus promoting student community within the classroom. Children of all ages, and adults for that matter, are motivated to learn by their desire to participate in a community. Learning is an act of participation. What is learned and how it is learned is often a result of the socialization between the individual and those around them. Further, active learning exercises help students to get to know each other better, which transforms passive learners into active participants during the transmission of information in classrooms. As students develop, sharing their values and perspectives, they create “communities of practice” (Wenger, 1992).

Learning is a lifelong and natural process, part of human nature. When students are offered multiple opportunities to actively engage and interact with objects, participate in social activities, and reflect on their discoveries, greater learning occurs. A recent ethnographic study done in Japan where students were engaged in cooperative learning experiences supports the benefits of active learning strategies in boosting content learning. The results of the study led the author to conclude that students who engaged in frequent cooperative learning experiences during classroom instruction increased their knowledge and attitudes about science (House, 2008). Engagement is inseparable from empowerment. When students make a contribution to the collective activity they are a part of (cooperative learning, complex instruction, etc.), they are empowered to learn.

Failure to learn is a result of exclusion from participation. When students are active participants in the processes of learning rather than passive recipients of transferred knowledge, learning is optimized.

Active learning has been found to increase higher order thinking and promote deeper learning of science content in cross-age tutoring situations. Lancor & Schiebel (2008) describe the positive experiences shared between introductory college physics students and second graders when they were paired in order to implement science lessons based on simple machines using active learning techniques. Results of this study revealed that both the college students and the elementary students experienced increased understanding of science concepts while enjoying their interactive moments together. The active learning techniques used also promoted critical thinking and reflective skills as the college students had to reflect on teaching and learning processes, while learning the deeper meaning of science concepts.

Several authors (Siew-Beng, 2005; Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987) discuss the disadvantages of lack of student interaction commonplace in the larger classes typically found in high school and college classrooms. They believe that, through active learning strategies, students can engage more and enhance their learning which serves to promote greater student community within the classroom. Findings indicated that active learning exercises also helped students to get to know each other, transforming passive learners into active participants during the transmission of information. A study by Yazedijian and Kolkhurst (2008) discussed how anonymity is nurtured in typical lectures classes as students are not encouraged to interact and get to know each other as well as the instructor. These authors attempted to use small group activities to promote rapport during their lecture classes, examining how students felt about the effectiveness of small-group activities as a strategy to promote active learning in a large lecture class. They concluded that all instructors ought to implement similar activities in their classrooms.

Most studies offer practical suggestions for implementing active learning which include the structuring of rich environments (Grabinger & Dunlap, 1994), along with the use of small group discussion techniques, brainstorming, debates, and sub-grouping techniques such as write-pair-share activities. These activities are known to enhance social interactions. Most importantly, active-learning yields tremendous cognitive benefits through increased engagement, greater retention, greater understanding, and development of thinking and application skills. At all educational levels, active learning promotes high levels of social development, general knowledge, and practical proficiency. Additionally, the complex changes in our society coupled with the circumstances of a new global economy require individuals who can multi-task, work collaboratively with others, critically think and problem solve.

While more recent views of learning have encouraged the use of active learning strategies to enhance the quality of student learning through students’ creation of meaning rather than rote memorization of facts, merely taking part in activities may not be enough to achieve deep learning (Haack, 2008). At the same time, while new technologies could generate a renaissance in learning, in most educational contexts today where new technology is being used, it is used to reinforce traditional and antiquated methods of instruction. Teachers must organize the learning environment as a scaffold across the entire curriculum. When students are immersed in an active learning curriculum that teaches them how the subject and/or discipline is structured, active learning can be a vehicle for the achievement of deep learning.

E-learning, the use of network technologies to foster anytime-anywhere transfer of knowledge, is one such vehicle for fostering active learning in and out of the classroom.

Due to the overwhelming acceptance of new technologies in schools, homes and other learning environments, E-learning has become common place in K-12 classrooms. In the last fifteen years due to amazing advances in wiring, Internet access in public schools went from 35% to 99% (NCES, 2002). This has afforded teachers the opportunity to download more interesting, engaging, and motivating material, similar to the entertainment media that students often use in their homes. This fact, along with the declining cost of computation, makes digital technologies more readily available which could lead to a transformation in how and what people learn across their lifetimes (Resnick, 1998).

As students interact with material that employs engaging production features, they are called upon to make choices, customizing the material and allowing them to move at their own speed as they navigate this medium. Teachers who are challenged to maximize the potential of the diverse learners within a classroom can easily see the advantages of this learner-centered approach. Through active engagement with the Internet, video games or CD-ROMS, students are more motivated to learn as they actively construct their own learning paths (Huffaker & Calvert, 2003).

A number of studies have demonstrated increases in cognitive and social growth when students are allowed to construct their own learning through creating their own video games, digital libraries, and on-line learning communities (Kafai, 1996; Druin, et al, 2003; Cassell, 2002). As one aspect of the new science of learning, this form of active learning empowers students to take active control of their own learning, emphasizing active engagement in the deep processing of information where links are created with existing knowledge bases, as well as focusing on how one generates knowledge (process) rather than just displaying its products.

Educators at all levels are recognizing the potential of active learning curricula, along with E-learning applications as scalable, transferable medium that allow students to explore subjects at length, both in and out of the classroom, while fostering greater learning with the technologies pervasive in our daily lives. While active learning as a vehicle to enhance the quality of student learning has become the latest buzzword, the question has arisen as to whether the application of active learning will continue to achieve its intentions and potential (Haack, 2008). The multiple concepts, methods and pedagogies associated with active learning, along with newly emerging technologies can lead today’s learners to apply tools and knowledge in new domains and different situations, but only if we are willing to rethink the how, what, where and when of learning (Resnick, 2002).


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