Active learning

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The term active learning covers a number of related trends, methods, and movements in the world of education, and in different fields. It represents a move away from traditional, teacher-centered, lecture based class sessions, and toward more student-centered class activities that feature group activities, pair discussions, hands-on learning activities, and limited use of traditional lectures. Some examples include:

  • Communicative language teaching (CLT) and task based language teaching (TBLT) in the teaching of English as a second / foreign language, and in the general field of language pedagogy
  • Discovery learning, which consists of activities in which students are given information and must figure out a principle or concept on their own as a group
  • Invention activities, which are a type of discovery learning; either students "invent" a concept as in discovery learning, or they invent something that serves as a memorable analogy for the concept to be learned. These have been developed by professors and college instructors in math, science, and engineering
  • Problem based learning (PBL), which arose in medical schools in Canada
  • Team based learning in science classes
  • Peer based instruction or peer learning, in which students choose answers and must justify and explain their choices to others.
  • Hands-on learning activities, where students learn by physically practicing with models or real objects

These ultimately go back to John Dewey's ideas of progressive and pragmatic education, which emphasized the social and cognitive aspects of human learning.

1 Rationale

Interactive approaches to learning such as problem based learning have been found to enhance learning for students (see, e.g., Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007)[1], and also have been found to lead to greater competency for medical students after graduation (Koh et al., 2008)[2]. One reason for their effectiveness is the commonly known generation effect in psychology. When students have to think through problems, find solutions, and come to understand concepts themselves, they in essence generate the concepts themselves, rather than passively sitting and learning in a traditional lecture. The generation of knowledge by self-discovery and group discovery leads to deeper knowledge structures (schemas), and better connections - between new and old knowledge, and between factual knowledge (facts, details) and conceptual knowledge.

Another advantage for interactive methods such as PBL is the reduced cognitive load on students (Hmelo-Silver, 2007)[3], as too much cognitive load (e.g., too much information) can overwhelm them and hinder conceptual learning. For example, one source of learning difficulty for students lies in the fact that science textbooks, and even lectures, can present an overwhelming amount of information, and students have difficulty focusing on or gaining conceptual knowledge from the books. Another problem may be that traditional lectures may only be partially effective in teaching new concepts, as a pure lecture format may lead to superficial learning. When students learn only superficially, then over time they may forget the new concepts learned in class. If it is an entirely new concept like cell membrane permeability in biology, then they may forget most of the concept and have to relearn it in their next biology or medical course.

Teachers can overcome these problems by breaking from traditional teaching formats, and trying more interactive formats that can challenge and deepen students' thinking processes, and help them learn important concepts more deeply. There are a number of things that teachers can do, which can be learned, e.g, in teaching workshops.

Group problem solving activities can be helpful for deeper learning of concepts, and retention of important concepts. Group activities, such as problem solving activities, are recommended for the following reasons.

  • Hour-long lectures can impair deeper cognitive processing of the materials being presented. Students' attention spans and working memory capacities are overloaded, and this factor itself limits cognitive processing. Also, passively listening to a long lecture leads to superficial cognitive processing of the information, and lower retention of the information, compared to more active forms of learning.
  • More active forms of learning such as activities with teacher-student and student-student interaction enhance students' interest, motivation, and attention.
  • More active forms of learning lead to deeper intellectual processing and understanding of concepts, as students are challenged to work out concepts for themselves. Better knowledge structures (schemas) are created in the mind, leading to deeper understanding, and longer retention of information.
  • Shifting from a lecture or lecture-discussion to a group activity, then back to lecture-discussion, helps students to maintain focus, attention, and memory processing.
  • When students work through problems themselves, this leads not only to a deeper understanding of concepts, but also helps them develop better problem solving and analytical skills. Students will also develop a greater ability to apply concepts and information learned in class to other situations that they encounter later - in the current class, in future classes, or as practitioners in their future fields or careers.
  • In group activities, the stronger students can help the weaker students.
  • Group problem solving not only enhances teamwork and social skills, but enhances motivation and interest among students.

2 Examples

  • TBLT / CLT tasks in which students must achieve a goal through negotiation and discussion.
  • Inductive grammar lessons, in which students are presented information about language forms and try to figure out the grammatical or pragmatic principles, forms, functions, or meanings involved.
  • Physics professor Eric Mazur demonstrates the teaching of college physics concepts with peer based instruction, e.g., in Youtube videos that show how he teaches electromagnetic induction. Students work in groups trying to figure out a challenge question. and are given several answers to a question, in multiple choice style. Students must then justify or explain their choices and reasons, and in doing so must figure out the concept. The talk-through process helps them to figure out the physics concept involved.
  • Invention / discovery activities. For example, students are given data about the IQs of two groups of people, and must determine whether the data ranges in the two data sets are substantively different, and thus, whether the two groups are really different. This leads them to deduce statistics concepts like variance.

3 References

  1. Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107.
  2. Koh GC, Khoo HE, Wong ML, Koh D (2008). The effects of problem-based learning during medical school on physician competency: a systematic review. CMAJ 178, 34–41.
  3. Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107.