Sunday, June 20, 2010

Active Learning

Active Learning Defined

Learning is often accomplished in a passive manner by having instructors or content transmitted to the learners for them to absorb. Where as active learning involves the learning by being engaged in the instructional process by means of such activities as exploring, analyzing, communicating, creating, reflecting, or actually using new information or experiences.

The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

A group of scholars of higher education were 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):
  • Learning does not occur in a vacuum. Learners discover and construct meaning from information and experience based on their unique perceptions, thoughts and feelings.
  • More information doesn't necessarily mean more learning. Learners seek to create meaningful uses of knowledge regardless of the quantity and quality information presented.
  • Learners link new knowledge to existing information in ways that make sense to them. The remembering of new knowledge is facilitated when it can be tied to a learner's current knowledge.
  • Personality influences learning. Learners have varying degrees of self-confidence and differ in the clarity of their personal goals and expectations for success and failure.
  • Learners want to learn. Individuals are naturally curious and enjoy learning, but personal insecurity and fear of failure often get in the way.
  • Learners like challenges and are most creative when it is challenging and meets their individual needs.
  • Learners are individuals. Not all learners are at the same stage of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development. Learners also differ in their cultural backgrounds. Although the basic principles of learning apply to all learners regardless of these differences, trainers must take into account such differences between learners.
  • The learning environment is important. Learners learn best in a friendly, socially interactive and diverse environment.
  • Learners like positive reinforcement. Learning environments that support the self-esteem and respect of the individual learner tend to be more successful.
  • Past experience matters. Personal beliefs and impressions from prior learning color the learners' world views and their approach to learning.


The Andragogic Learning Model recognizes several facets to learning (Knowles, 1973):
  • Learners are problem centered rather than content centered.
  • Instructors permit and encourage the active participation of the learners.
  • Instructors encourage the learner to introduce past experiences into the learning process in order to reexamine that experience in the light of new data.
  • The climate of learning must be collaborative (instructor-to-learner and learner-to-learner) as opposed to authority-oriented.
  • The learning environment (planning, conducting, evaluating) is a mutual activity between learner and instructor.
  • Evaluation leads to appraisal of needs and interests and therefore to the redesign of new learning activities.
  • Activities are experimental, not "transmittal and absorption."
Thus, the primary function of the instructor is to become a guide to the process of learning, not a manager of content. The "learning guide" uses two-way communication to establish the objectives and methods of the learning process.

Process of Learning

The three models discussed above emphasize the importance involving the learners in the training and learning process. Such a model would look similar to this:
Active Learning Flow or Process

The Process of Learning Model (Laird, 1985)

A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it. — Peter Senge
Notice how The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, the set of Learner-Centered Principles for Training, and the Andragogic Learning Model 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 hierarchical instruction model 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 some learners. Since these learners might have not of 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 method 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 learner's expectations and past history are likely to influence their reaction to the type of learning being presented. Those that have had good experiences with past learning experiences that allowed them to become involved will have a more positive attitude than others with negative experiences.
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 & Gamson (1997)
There are three general types of learning groups: informal learning, formal learning, and study teams (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991):
  • Informal learning groups are "off the cuff" clustering of learners within a single class session, e.g. asking the learners to turn to a neighbor and spend two minutes discussing a question you have posed. These informal groups are formed to check on the learners' understanding of the material, to give them an opportunity to apply what they are learning, or to provide a change of pace.
  • Formal learning groups are established to complete a specific task, such as perform a lab experiment, write a report, carry out a project, or prepare a position paper. These groups may complete their work in a single class session or over several days. The learners work together until the task is finished.
  • Study teams are long-term groups with stable membership whose primary responsibility is to provide members with support, encouragement, and assistance in completing course requirements and assignments. Study teams also inform their members about lectures and assignments when someone has missed a session. The larger the class and the more complex the subject matter, the more valuable study teams can be.
In addition, the process that these learning group uses falls into two different camps:
  • Cooperative learning involves the more conventional notion of cooperation, in that learners work in small groups on an assigned project or problem under the guidance of the facilitator who monitors the groups, making sure the learners are staying on task and are coming up with the correct answers (if there is a right or a best answer).
  • Collaborative learning is a more radical departure. It involves learners working together in small groups to develop their own answer through interaction and reaching consensus, not necessarily a known answer. Monitoring the groups or correcting "wrong" impressions is not the role of the facilitator since there is no authority on what the answer should be.
Achieving a climate for learning can be accomplished by:
  • Breaking the class into small groups
  • Keep people moving around from group to group/person to person
  • Have activities and projects outside the classroom for group participation
  • Developing teams
  • Peer tutoring
  • Encouraging the learners to study together
  • Encouraging the learners to answer each other's questions instead of answering them yourself
  • Have learners teach all or part of a lesson
  • Be a model by asking questions and displaying good listening behaviors

A Structure for Mutual Planning

Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of class is a most 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 & 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:
  • Using a one-on-one approach to assessing the learner's requirements
  • Personalizing feedback on learner assignment
  • Open-door policy
  • Email
  • Staying for after-class conversations
  • Mentoring
  • Learning student's names
  • Telephone access
  • Frequent question and answer periods

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 & Gamson (1997)
Learners' needs can be met by:
  • Utilizing multimedia presentations that engage the learners.
  • Providing outside of the classroom activities (field trips).
  • Giving the learners a problem to solve that has multiple solutions.
  • Changing the media or delivery method frequently.
  • Identifying a variety of learning opportunities for each module.
  • Explaining theory from a "practical approach" first and then adding the structural approach.

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 & Gamson (1997)
Due to certain 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:
  • Although a lot of learning is developmental and cannot be easily defined, work with each learner to set as complete a learning goal or objective as possible — what is the task to be learned, how will it be learned, how will they know it has been learned.
  • Assign realistic time values for each objective or learning point. If the total time is greater than the time you have, adjust accordingly, such as self-study for the less critical learning points.

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 highlighted student involvement as one of three critical conditions for excellence in education, noting that "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" (U.S. Department of Education 1984:18-19).
"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 cited these sources: Beckman, 1990; Chickering & Gamson, 1991; Collier, 1980; Cooper and Associates, 1990; Goodsell, Maher, Tinto, and Associates, 1992; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Kohn, 1986; McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin, and Smith, 1986; Slavin, 1980, Slavin, 1983; Whitman, 1988).
To help achieve an active learning design:
  • Set up problem solving activities in small groups and have each group discuss with class.
  • Get feedback on what activities help the students to learn.
  • Encourage reflection (e.g. learning journals).
  • Encourage learners to challenge ideas, the ideas of other students, or those presented in readings or other course materials (note that "challenging" is not flaming each other).
  • Give learners concrete, real-life situations to analyze.
  • Encourage students to suggest new readings, projects, or course activities. The learning environment needs to be dynamic, not passive.

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 & Gamson 1997)
Carrying out a plan or design, if often the hardest part, but the most enjoyable:
  • Ensure that time spent on a task is real learning, not busy work.
  • Understand that there will be problems and changes along the way — plan for them.
  • Identify key concepts and how those will be taught.
  • Active learning, not passive, should always be stressed.
  • Expect learners to participate (preframing).
  • Try to make the assignments interesting. The more interesting, the more involved the learners become.
  • Blend two types of knowledge: theoretical and everyday-lived.
  • Ask learners to comment on what they are doing. This helps to reinforce the learning experience.

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 & 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:
  • Grade on a criteria based system by using a range of test questions (using a curve is ok).
  • Provide constructive criticism when necessary, but provide praise/input as often as possible.
  • Provide plenty of question and answer sessions.
  • Use exams that give fast feedback.
  • Relate lessons to real life experiences.
  • Videos can be used to help the learner critique his or her own performance.
  • The trainer or other students can react to a writer's draft using the "hidden text" option available in word processors: Turned on, the hidden comments spring up; turned off, the comments recede and the writer's prized work is again free of red ink.
  • Celebrate success!


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Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. The Wingspread Journal, 9(2), See also AAHE Bulletin, March, 1987.
Collier, K. G. (1980). Peer-Group Learning in Higher Education: The Development of Higher-order Skills. Studies in Higher Education, 5(1), 55-62.
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McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P R., Lin, Y.-G. & Smith, D. A. F. (1986). Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research Literature. Ann Arbor: National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan.
Pascarella, E. T. & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Slavin, R. F. (1980). Cooperative Learning. Review of Educational Research, 50(2), 315-342.
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Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Whitman, N. A. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is to Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No.4. Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of Higher Education.

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