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Active learning, as the name suggests, is a process whereby learners are actively engaged in the learning process, rather than "passively" absorbing lectures. Active learning involves reading, writing, discussion, and engagement in solving problems, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Active learning is also known as cooperative learning.

Why is active learning important?

Research has consistently shown that traditional lecture methods, in which professors talk and students listen, dominate college and university classrooms. It is therefore important to know the nature of active learning, the empirical research on its use, the common obstacles and barriers that give rise to faculty members' resistance to interactive instructional techniques, and how faculty, faculty developers, administrators, and educational researchers can make real the promise of active learning.

Until recently there has been no common definition of "active learning." Consequently, many believe that all learning is inherently active and that students are therefore "actively involved" while listening to formal presentations in the classroom.

Research suggests that the use of active learning techniques (as defined in the introduction) may have a positive impact upon students' learning. For example, several studies have shown that students prefer strategies that promote active learning rather than traditional lectures. Other research evaluating students' achievement has demonstrated that many strategies promoting active learning are comparable to lectures in promoting the mastery of content but superior to lectures in promoting the development of students' skills in thinking and writing.

Further, some cognitive research has shown that a significant number of individuals have learning styles best served by pedagogical techniques other than lecturing. Development and implementation of these techniques requires that teachers become knowledgeable about active learning strategies and alternative approaches to instruction.

How can active learning be incorporated in the classroom?

The modification of traditional lectures (Penner 1984) is one way to incorporate active learning in the classroom. Research has demonstrated, for example, that if a faculty member allows students to consolidate their notes by pausing three times for two minutes each during a lecture, students will learn significantly more information (Ruhl, Hughes, and Schloss 1987). Two other simple yet effective ways to involve students during a lecture are to insert brief demonstrations or short, ungraded writing exercises followed by class discussion.

Certain alternatives to the lecture format further increase student level of engagement: (1) the feedback lecture, which consists of two minilectures separated by a small-group study session built around a study guide, and (2) the guided lecture, in which students listen to a 20- to 30-minute presentation without taking notes, followed by their writing for five minutes what they remember and spending the remainder of the class period in small groups clarifying and elaborating the material.

Discussion in class is one of the most common strategies promoting active learning, with good reason. If the objectives of a course are to promote long-term retention of information, to motivate students toward further learning, to allow students to apply information in new settings, or to develop students' thinking skills, then discussion is preferable to lecture (McKeachie et al. 1986). Research has suggested, however, that to achieve these goals faculty must be knowledgeable of alternative techniques and strategies for questioning and discussion (Hyman 1980) and must create a supportive intellectual and emotional environment that encourages students to take risks (Lowman 1984).

Several additional strategies promoting active learning have been similarly shown to favorably influence students' attitudes and achievement. Visual-based instruction, for example, can provide a helpful focal point for other interactive techniques. In-class writing is another way to involve students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing. Two popular instructional strategies based on problem-solving model include the case study method of instruction and Guided Design. Other active learning pedagogies include debates, drama, role playing and simulation, and peer teaching.

It may be implemented by giving students topics they could research and make papers about it.

What are the barriers?

Certain specific obstacles are associated with the use of active learning, including limited class time; a possible increase in preparation time; the potential difficulty of using active learning in large classes; and a lack of needed materials, equipment, or resources.

Perhaps the single greatest barrier of all, however, is the fact that faculty members' efforts to employ active learning involve risk--the risks that students will not participate, use higher-order thinking, or learn sufficient content, that faculty members will feel a loss of control, lack necessary skills, or be criticized for teaching in unorthodox ways. Each obstacle or barrier and type of risk, however, can be successfully overcome through careful, thoughtful planning.

What conclusions should be drawn, and what recommendations made?

An excellent first step is to select strategies promoting active learning that one can feel comfortable with. Such low-risk strategies are typically of short duration, structured and planned, focused on subject matter that is neither too abstract nor too controversial, and familiar to both the faculty member and the students.

Faculty developers can help stimulate and support faculty members' efforts to change by highlighting the instructional importance of active learning in the newsletters and publications they distribute. Further, the use of active learning should become both the subject matter of faculty development workshops and the instructional method used to facilitate such programs. And it is important that faculty developers recognize the need to provide follow-up to, and support for, faculty members' efforts to change.

Academic administrators can help these initiatives by recognizing and rewarding excellent teaching in general and the adoption of instructional innovations in particular. Comprehensive programs to demonstrate this type of administrative commitment (Cochran 1989) should address institutional employment policies and practices, the allocation of adequate resources for instructional development, and the development of strategic administrative action plans.

Equally important is the need for more rigorous research to provide a scientific foundation to guide future practices in the classroom. Currently, most published articles on active learning have been descriptive accounts rather than empirical investigations, many are out of date, either chronologically or methodologically, and a large number of important conceptual issues have never been explored. New qualitative and quantitative research should examine strategies that enhance students' learning from presentations; explore the impact of previously overlooked, yet educationally significant, characteristics of students, such as gender, different learning styles, or stage of intellectual development; and be disseminated in journals widely read by faculty.

In retrospect, it appears that previous classroom initiatives and written materials about active learning have all too often been isolated and fragmented. The resulting pedagogical efforts have therefore lacked coherence, and the goal of interactive classrooms has remained unfulfilled. Through the coordinated efforts of individual faculty, faculty developers, academic administrators, and educational researchers, however, higher education in the coming decade CAN make real the promise of active learning!

See also

Selected References

  • Chickering, Arthur W., and Zelda F. Gamson. March 1987. "Seven Principles for Good Practice." AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7. ED 282 491. 6 pp. MF-01; PC-01.

Cochran, Leslie H. 1989. Administrative Commitment to Teaching. Cape Girardeau, Mo.: Step Up, Inc.

  • Hyman, Ronald T. 1980. Improving Discussion Leadership. New York: Columbia Univ., Teachers College Press.
  • Lorenzen, Michael. 2001. Active Learning and Library Instruction. Illinois Libraries, 83, no. 2: 19-24.
  • Lowman, Joseph. 1984. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • McKeachie, Wilbert J., Paul R. Pintrich, Yi-Guang Lin, and David A.F. Smith. 1986. Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research Literature. Ann Arbor: Regents of The Univ. of Michigan. ED 314 999. 124 pp. MF-01; PC-05.
  • Penner, Jon G. 1984. Why Many College Teachers Cannot Lecture. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.
  • Ruhl, Kathy L., Charles A. Hughes, and Patrick J. Schloss. Winter 1987. "Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall." Teacher Education and Special Education 10: 14-18.

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