Life and its challenges, they say, come in all forms and sizes. Then why shouldn’t the classroom, which is supposed to prepare one for life, also emulate these characteristics?
Active learning does just that and looks at learning as a skill-developing activity instead of an information-rote memorization one. Active learning strategies can be seen as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing”. These activities can range from tasks as simple as pair or group discussion among students to something as new and exciting as the student becoming the teacher for a day.
Studies dating as far back as 30 years ago have proved that when students take a more active role in their learning than just passively listening to and copying what the teachers are telling them, they retain and apply the information much more effectively.
Active Learning: A few characteristics that make it unique
Active learning as an approach encourages the students to take a more active role in their learning process. Its final goal is not just to help them gain insights about the concept being taught but also about their learning patterns. This and several other key characteristics set active learning apart from all other types of learning.
1. Teacher as a facilitator and participant instead of an instructor and lecturer
Active learning does not follow the traditional lecture model where the educator disseminates all the information, and the student just copies and memorizes it. Instead, it involves the teacher playing the role of a facilitator, actively participating in the activities as an equal to the students.
2. Greater emphasis on developing skills over memorizing information
Active learning approaches require the students to engage in learning. Here the student not only learns the concept at hand but also learns several other skills in the process, including self-awareness.
3. Promotes creativity in the classroom
In active learning, students are given the freedom to explore and a supportive environment where all their contributions are valued. This encourages them to understand problems and what might or might not work on their own as well as to come up with new and different ways of approaching the same problem.
4. Promotes social skills
Active learning techniques often employ peer-to-peer learning through discussions, debates, role-playing, etc. This not only helps in understanding the concept better but also in understanding one another. The student does not only learn the concept but also learns various social and practical skills like teamwork, sharing, assertiveness, cooperation, etc.
5. Makes the classroom more inclusive
Studies have shown that employing active learning techniques in the classroom helps in reducing the learning gap between various groups like economically or educationally disadvantaged students in college and between males and females. They have also been shown to enhance learning outcomes for people with dyslexia.
Active learning: Pros and cons explored
Active learning, while a great advancement in the area of education, also has its pros and cons.
1. Every class is unique
Active learning does not include the delivery of any structured content but instead involves the hands-on participation of the students and the educator in developing and understanding knowledge about a concept.
Since the students and the educators vary from class to class, every class can promise to be a one-of-a-kind experience. The results of each activity will be different for every class resulting in novel and unique lessons that keep everyone involved, intrigued, and excited about the next one.
2. Less boredom and more engagement
Engagement-based learning in class through various group and solo activities makes sure that the students will pay attention throughout the class.
Taking responsibility for their tasks and parts and seeing it come to fruition could also promote students to take more responsibility and improve their expectations of good outcomes when they do so.
3. Promotes taking responsibility
Taking responsibility in the classroom and having a positive expectation of the results fosters a love for learning and encourages the student to take on a more active and independent role in the process.
This has a tendency to spill over to other areas of life, wherein students start taking on more responsibility because they trust their capabilities and expect a positive outcome. The eventual result is an individual who appreciates the role of peers and community but is also more independent in their learning as well as their life.
4. Learning from and through failure
A big part of active learning involves learning through trial and error. This means students can and probably will fail at some tasks, only to stay at them and eventually succeed.
Being able to fail at something in a supportive environment makes it easier for students to deal with failure if they ever face it later in life. This also boosts their self-esteem and builds important skills like resilience and perseverance.
5. Facilitates the development of useful skills
Active learning emphasizes the importance of the context in which learning takes place. So, through trial and error, students learn what particular technique will produce the desired result in a particular situation.
They learn practical skills and understand what techniques will be useful under what circumstances. This not only makes it easy for the students to understand the motive behind teaching a concept but aids in its recall and transfer to real-life situations.
1. Requires the educators to be extremely skilled
Being able to deliver a class that has no course material can be a challenging task. The activities, while creative, are also very subjective, with their outcomes depending on the facilitator’s skill and students’ participation.
To be able to get everyone to participate and guide the class discussions and activities in the direction of the concept at hand requires a lot of skill, time, patience, and experience.
2. It can be counterproductive for those uncomfortable with class participation
There could still be some students who, despite all the encouragement, are not comfortable or willing to participate actively.
A curriculum based on active learning could not only be detrimental for those students but also for the ones paired or grouped with them. This could affect the entire class’s morale and learning outcomes.
3. It cannot be used with larger classes
Since the activities involved in active learning are often creative in nature, they also require certain tools, technology, and infrastructure to be effectively performed.
This becomes more difficult in larger classes with more students. The instructor might not be able to arrange tools for everyone in the class and then effectively facilitate the activity making sure everyone is benefitting from it.
4. It cannot be used to disseminate core ideas and theories
Since the outcome of an activity usually depends on the students in the class and the facilitator’s skill, they can vary from class to class.
This makes active learning incompatible when the goal is to teach a large amount of theoretical information and foundational ideas that require everyone to understand the same thing in a short amount of time.
5. Less efficient from the educators’ perspective
The course material in active learning curriculums is specifically designed keeping in mind the special circumstances of a particular class. They cannot be reused or passed down to new instructors.
Having to develop new material and activities for every concept and class can be very challenging for the instructors. Not to mention the added tools and infrastructure expenses.
Active Learning: helping students reflect on their understanding?
Looking at the unique characteristics and pros and cons of active learning, it can be said that the technique, when employed under the right conditions by skilled facilitators, can produce satisfactory, if not impressive, results.
Brame (2016) suggests a slow transition from other methods while slowly inculcating some small tasks and activities inspired by active learning . It is vital to make the students as much a part of the transition as they will be learning. So informing them before starting about the why and how of these techniques and taking their feedback on the same can prove to be beneficial.
Combining active learning with various other types of learning, like reflective learning, can enhance the overall learning experience.
Active learning has unique characteristics, which makes it a giant leap forward from the traditional one-way lecture method of teaching and learning. While extremely effective, active learning also has its pitfalls. Hence, various factors about the students, the educators, and the infrastructure need to be taken into account before adopting the active learning method.
- Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
- Unwin, A., & Douglas, A. (2001). Active Learning and Creativity in Education. The Academy of Hummanities and Economics.
- Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., and Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science 332, 1213–1216.
- Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C.H., Mazur, E. (2006). Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics 74, 118–122.
- Foster, I. (2008). Enhancing the learning experience of student radiographers with dyslexia. Radiography, 14(1), 32-38.
- Brame, C. (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.