Active Learning

A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it. - Peter Senge

Learning is often accomplished in a passive manner by having the content transmitted to the learners for them to absorb, such as a lecture or a reading assignment.

Active learning involves the learners by having them engaged in the instructional process by means of such activities as exploring, analyzing, communicating, creating, reflecting, or practicing their new skills to gain experiences.

The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

A group of scholars of higher education was asked for a set of principles that could improve learning. Their findings boiled down to one key concept:

Effective teachers demonstrate more implementation of learner-centered domains of practice than less effective teachers. (Fasko, Grubb, McCombs, McCombs, 1993)

From this study, Chickering and Gamson (1997) formulated The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education:

  1. Encourage contacts between students and faculty
  2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Use active learning techniques
  4. Give prompt feedback
  5. Emphasize time on task
  6. Communicate high expectations
  7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning

Learner-Centered Principles

A set of Learner-Centered Principles for Training (Ellis, Wagner, Longmire, 1999) were created to help with the learning process. They are based on the work of Barbara McCombs (1992):


Andragogy is the method and practice of teaching adult learners.

The Andragogic Learning Model recognizes several facets to learning (Knowles, 1990):

The primary function of the instructor is not a manager of content, but rather a facilitator who guides the process of learning by using two-way communication to establish the objectives and the methods of the learning process.

Process of Learning

The three sections discussed above emphasize the importance involving the learners in the training and learning process. Such a model would look similar to this:

The Process of Learning Model (Laird, 1985)

Active Learning Flow or Process

Notice how they all tie into The Process of Learning Model:

  1. A climate for Active learning
    • Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students (Seven Principles)
    • Learning does not occur in a vacuum (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • Learners want to learn (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • The learning environment is important (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • They encourage the learner to introduce past experiences into the process in order to reexamine that experience in the light of new data (Andragogic Learning Model)
  2. A structure for mutual planning
    • Encourages contacts between students and Faculty (Seven Principles)
    • Personality influences learning (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • Learners like challenges (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • The learning environment (planning, conducting, evaluating) is a mutual activity between learner and instructor (Andragogic Learning Model)
  3. Learners' needs, interests, and values
    • Respects diverse talents and ways of learning (Seven Principles)
    • Learners link new knowledge to existing information in ways that make sense to the learner (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • Learners are individuals (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • They are problem centered rather than content centered (Andragogic Learning Model)
  4. Formulation of objectives
    • Communicates high expectations (Seven Principles)
    • The climate of learning must be collaborative (instructor-to-learner and learner-to-learner) as opposed to authority-oriented (Andragogic Learning Model)
  5. Designs for learning
    • Uses active learning techniques (Seven Principles)
    • Past experience matters (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • Activities are experimental, not "transmittal and absorption" (Andragogic Learning Model)
  6. Carrying out the design
    • Emphasizes time on task (Seven Principles)
    • More information doesn't necessarily mean more learning (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • The permit and encourage the active participation of the learner (Andragogic Learning Model)
  7. Mutual evaluation, leading to reappraisal and revision of the learning objectives
    • Gives prompt feedback (Seven Principles)
    • Learners like positive reinforcement (Learner-Centered Principles)
    • Evaluation leads to appraisal of needs and interests and therefore to redesign and new learning activities (Andragogic Learning Model)
Most of us only know how to be taught, we haven't learned how to learn. - Malcom Knowles

This active process of learner involvement differs from the conventional instruction models where those who know, teach those who do not know. Active learning is not only a new experience for some instructors, but also a new experience for many learners. Since these learners might not have encountered this type of learning, or perhaps had a prior negative experience, special attention might be needed.

For example, one study found that learners respond differently to a visiting instructor simply based on receiving information prior to the lecture that indicated if the instructor was a cold or a warm person (Kelley, 1952). While everyone experienced the same learning methods in the same room, at the same time, those who had been primed to expect a warm instructor participated more in the discussion and subsequently rated the instructor more positively than those who had expected a cold person. This finding suggests that individuals look for evidence to confirm their prior expectations.

This is known as preframing, which is the attitudes and beliefs that learners bring into a learning environment. Preframes come from other learners, supervisors, past experience, culture, etc.

With regard to learner involvement, it is important to note that the learners' expectations and past history are likely to influence their reaction to the type of learning being presented. Those that have good experiences with past learning experiences that allowed them to become involved, will have a more positive attitude than others with negative experiences will.

If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic. - Lewis Carroll

A Climate for Learning

Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's ideas and responding to others improves thinking and deepens understanding. - Chickering and Gamson (1997)

There are three general types of learning groups: informal learning, formal learning, and study teams (Johnson, Johnson, Smith, 1991):

In addition, the process that these learning groups use falls into two different camps:

Achieving a climate for learning can be accomplished by:

A Structure for Mutual Planning

Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of class is an important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and plans. — Chickering and Gamson (1997)

Large-scale correlational studies conclude that students who have frequent contact with faculty members in and out of class are better satisfied with their educational experience, less likely to drop out, and perceive themselves to have learned more than students with less faculty contact (Pascarella, Terenzini, 1991).

Some methods of mutual planning are:

Learners' Needs, Interests, and Values

Many roads lead to learning. Different students bring different talents and styles to college. Brilliant students in a seminar might be all thumbs in a lab or studio; students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well with theory. Students need opportunities to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learn in new ways that do not come so easily. - Chickering and Gamson (1997)

Learners' needs can be met by:

Formulation of Objectives

Expect more and you will get it. High expectations are important for everyone — for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. - Chickering and Gamson (1997)

Due to training requirements, learning objectives are often required. However, by focusing on the learners' needs, rather than just the training program's needs, you can get the learners involved with the achievement of the objectives:

Designs for Active Learning

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves - Chickering & Gamson (1997)

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Education (Cross, 1984:18-19) highlighted student involvement as one of three critical conditions for excellence in education:

It is only the amount of time one can allocate for learning, but the quality of effort within that time makes the difference... quality of effort refers to the extent to which learning is active rather than passive and colleges clearly can control the conditions of active learning by expecting students to be participants in, rather than spectators of, the learning process.

Students learn best when they are actively involved in the process. Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats. Students who work in collaborative groups also appear more satisfied with their classes (Cross (The author, Cross, cited these sources: Beckman, 1990; Chickering, Gamson, 1991; Collier, 1980; Cooper and Associates, 1990; Goodsell, Maher, Tinto, Associates, 1992; Johnson, Johnson, Smith, 1991; Kohn, 1986; McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin, Smith, 1986; Slavin, 1980, Slavin, 1983; Whitman, 1988).

To help achieve an active learning design:

Carrying out the Active Learning Design

Time plus energy equals learning. Learning to use one's time well is critical for students and professionals alike. Allocating realistic amounts of time means effective learning for students and effective teaching for faculty - Chickering and Gamson (1997)

Carrying out a plan or design, if often the hardest part, but the most enjoyable:

Mutual Evaluation, Leading to Reappraisal and Revision of the Learning Objectives

Knowing what you know and don't know focuses your learning. In getting started, students need help in assessing their existing knowledge and competence. Then, in classes, students need frequent opportunities to perform and receive feedback on their performance. At various points during college, and at its end, students need chances to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how they might assess themselves - Chickering and Gamson (1997).

Each learner differs in his or her need for achievement and how success and failure is perceived. These differences tend to affect individual motivation and persistence at a task. Individual motivation and persistence is affected by how one makes attributions for success and failure (Weiner, 1986).

For example, one can attribute success to something about oneself or something about the environment. Learners who credit themselves for success, tend to have higher motivation and persist longer at tasks as they believe they have control over success or failure and thus greater persistence should lead to success.

The goal of any training intervention should be to facilitate these types of attributions as they increase the desire to learn and make use of the training:

Next Steps

Next Section: Affective Learning

Return to the Learning Concept Map


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