What is active learning?

Definition(s): Multiple sources converge

Active learning has been interpreted and defined with slight variations by different authors and scholars. Therefore, offering a single, absolute definition for the concept is not possible. No need to worry, though! By consulting multiple sources, light can very reliably be shed upon this widely discussed topic.

So, here’s to a fresh start: What is active learning? Some of the seminal work on the topic, by Bonwell and Eison in 1991, defined active learning as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” So, students needn’t solely be on the receiving end of a stream of information presented by the teacher. They also have to mentally engage with that information, and actively think about the implications of this process (i.e., apply metacognition – thinking about thinking).
This definition is loosely based around 5 common characteristics of active learning strategies, mentioned in the same work cited above. These, taken together, add nuance to our yet evolving definition of active learning:

1. Students are involved in more than listening;

2. Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing students’ skills;

3. Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation);

4. Students are engaged in activities (e.g., reading, discussing, writing);

5. Greater emphasis is placed on students’ exploration of their own attitudes and values.

As such, the engagement in active learning is multi-sensory, implies doing things rather than passively consuming information, requires employing one’s higher order thinking to the fullest, contains elements of social learning, and even prescribes analysing information via the lens of one’s identity (e.g., via attitudes and values).

Now, maybe you want a modern take on the matter, and you fast forward 23 years into the future to ask 338 active learning seminar attendees for written definitions of the topic – what do you get? Well, Freeman and Colleagues have us covered, as they did precisely that. The answer? A contemporary, scientifically sourced definition of an arguably elusive concept: “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.” The similarities to the former work are glaring. This definition has not changed much.

To cement, and perhaps enhance what the authors above have pinned down, a final definition of the concept is offered, this time from the Greenwood Dictionary of Education: Active learning is “The process of having students engage in some activity that forces them to reflect upon ideas and upon how they are using those ideas. Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems in a particular discipline. The attainment of knowledge by participating or contributing. The process of keeping students mentally, and often physically, active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking, and problem solving”. Hence, this last take on the meaning of active learning adds a layer of introspection, while still maintaining most formerly mentioned elements.

What this all means in practice: When trying to learn something, don’t stop at reading!

Essentially, if you were to apply active learning principles to studying what’s been presented herein up until this point, you would do at least some of the following: Perhaps you would ring a friend, explain to them what active learning is, and think of examples together, perhaps based on your respective experiences; You could also think of ways to apply these principles to teaching someone something you know really well, and then actually go out and do it; Furthermore, you may want to pull out a piece of paper and draw a schematic representation of all the ways in which information can be tackled; or you might simply write down all you can remember about the topic at hand. Finally, you could think of classes you took in the past and how they could’ve been improved via these techniques, and imagine how you would’ve felt or thought about them if this was the case. Irrespective of what you’d decide, you would certainly not call it a day after having only read the material.


Does Active Learning Work?

The Freeman & Colleagues 2014 Meta-Analysis: A convincing lead

Much more than a source for a crowd-sourced definition, Freeman and Colleagues’ work is one of the most extensive studies to date on whether active learning approaches make a difference in the classroom. Their 2014 research is a meta-analysis of 225 studies on undergraduate courses from the STEM (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, in all of which failure rates or exam results were reported, aiming to compare these outcomes as a function of teaching method (i.e., Active learning vs Traditional lecturing). Their results are unambiguous: Average failure rates were 33.8% in traditional learning classes, but only 21.8% in active learning classes. Put differently, 55% more people failed their courses in the context of traditional lectures alone being the method of instruction. Additionally, differences were statistically significant and supporting the benefits of active learning in either grade differences or failure rates, or both, across the STEM disciplines included in the study, with no exceptions. Furthermore, active learning, albeit most effective in classes of 50 students or less, significantly improved educational outcomes in classes of all sizes (i.e., 51 – 110 or 110+ students). The positive effects also held constant no matter how advanced the course was (i.e., no matter if, for example, 1st or 3rd year courses). To ascertain whether the results were valid, the authors also ran analyses to account for publication bias (i.e., the tendency for positive findings to be preferentially published), as well as differences in included studies’ quality, neither of which raised any red flags. Finally, and quite compellingly, the effect size of 0.47 quoted for differences in course results in this research is very similar to the averaged effect sizes in other, older meta-analyses on the benefits of active learning in the STEM disciplines (i.e., 0.50 and 0.51).


The 0.47 effect size might not sound like much to the uninitiated reader. Nonetheless, the authors attempt to put the figure in perspective in their discussion: For a student initially faring as well or better than 50% of their class (i.e., being in the 50th percentile), this change means that they would shift to doing as well or better than 68% of their class. Furthermore, the cited odds ratio for failing a course under traditional lectures, 1.95, was enough for the authors to draw a comparison to controlled clinical trials, which, given results comparable to these ones (i.e., positive results with p-values under 0.001, on a large sample size – in this case, 225 courses), would be “stopped for benefit” (i.e., would be discontinued due to the obviously greater benefit of the treatment vs. control, thus making it both inefficient and unethical to continue the trial). In practice, the authors emphasize, the recorded difference in failure rates (21.8% vs 33.8%), in the context of the 67 traditional lecture courses included in the study (containing 29300 students in total), would have translated to 3516 fewer students failing, if they had instead been taught using active learning designs. That means approximately US$3.500.000 in tuition fees spent on lost/repeated academic years would’ve been saved. Plausibly, such improvements would translate to an enormous amount of spared resources if applied to education at large. Given more recent evidence that active learning also leads to a more efficient use of physical space, as well as teacher’s time, its adoption for the purpose of increasing efficiency in higher education seems like a self-evident choice.


Further clues regarding the benefits of Active Learning: An ethical obligation?

Now, if the evidence presented above is not enough to convince you of the benefits of active learning, there are some further aspects you might want to consider. For example, active learning has been shown by Haak and Colleagues to be highly beneficial to poorly prepared (due to disadvantaged socioeconomic or educational backgrounds), yet capable biology students – it can be a much needed hand of help for those who are far from reaching their potential. It logically follows, then, that the difference between a traditional and active course design, under certain circumstances, could be decisive for one’s future and career. The latter could conceivably lead to increased life-long satisfaction and productivity for the student averting failure, while the opposite could be true of the former. Along the same lines, another study by Lorenzo and Colleagues shows that the pre-instruction performance gender gap in Harvard physics courses could be reduced, by introducing interactivity, in as little as one semester: Women seemed to derive relatively greater advantages from non-traditional course designs, although males in the sample also significantly benefitted. Accordingly, any method such as active learning empowering disadvantaged groups in particular, as well as all other students, to better progress with their studies, is one that any educational institution concerned with the satisfaction of its students and quality of its course offerings should consider. Adopting such practices will not only improve an institution’s reputation, it will also slowly but surely ripple outwards, creating a positive impact on society at large.

Active learning is a must!

The evidence for active learning is quite strong – it seems that, if used correctly, it can benefit everyone involved in the education process, from teachers to all types of students. Additionally, some really good news is that there are easy active learning techniques which you can implement in your classroom, to gain some of the above mentioned benefits right away!​


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  1. Awesome, thanks!

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