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What is active learning? The benefits (and challenges). Part 1

Active learning is when learners take an active role in their learning instead of passively receiving and memorizing content. In active learning environments, learners explore, analyze, assess, apply and evaluate. The instructor’s job is to assemble resources, create learning activities, and guide students as they synthesize and implement what they’re learning. 

Active learning supports today’s learners because knowledge and competencies have changed. In this post-internet world information is abundant, dynamic and often unregulated, making memorization less important than being able to find, analyze and use new information. Active learning empowers learners to develop these lifelong learning skills. 

“The person who does the work is the person who does the learning.”

Dr. Terry Doyle

How is active learning different from ‘regular’ learning? 

Lecturing is a simple teaching strategy. You organize your thoughts, maybe prepare a PowerPoint, then position yourself in the front of the room (or webcam) and deliver. Lecturing is “teaching at”; a mostly one-way system that’s like watching a video except it’s a video you can’t pause, rewind, or see the captions. Lectures are a passive way to learn. 

Students learn through doing. If lecture is the equivalent of having a meal delivered, active learning is learning how to cook. Active learning helps learners become self-sufficient, which research indicates is a better way to learn.  

In active learning environments, instructors create and facilitate learning opportunities. Instead of simply delivering information, instructors provide learning activities and resources, guide learners through the activities, and help them reflect on, analyze and implement what they learn.  

The benefits

  1. Active learning helps students learn more and retain it longer by creating engaging learning environments where students can apply their learning in practical situations. Current research shows that learning is most effective when learners are actively and constructively engaged in creating their knowledge, then reflect on what they learn.
  2. Active learning prepares students for their professional lives, because most workplaces are active learning environments – workers are expected to find information, practice self-management, and function without micromanagement. All of these competencies are strengthened in active learning environments. 
    • Globalization, mobile workforces and the gig economy necessitate change management skills, emotional intelligence and creativity.  
    • Workers must keep their skills and knowledge current, which requires lifelong learning.
  3. Active learning environments are more enjoyable. Students are typically more engaged so instructors can focus on facilitating learning instead of trying to force participation. 

The challenges  

Although active learning is supported by lots of current research, there are challenges, especially for students used to passive learning.  According to researchers Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent: “Students forced to take major responsibility for their own learning go through some or all of the steps psychologists associate with trauma and grief: shock, denial, strong emotion, resistance and withdrawal, struggle and exploration, return of confidence, integration and success.” These challenges are surmountable but you need to prepare for them. 

Active learning requires skills students may not have. Since active learning environments include activities, teamwork and multiple assignments, learners need time management and self-regulation skills. They also need to be proactive and responsible, using the resources provided and asking for help when they need it. And they must be able to communicate clearly. Students who don’t have those skills or who are habituated to passive learning environments need support as they get used to active learning. Most adapt quickly but instructor and institutional support is absolutely necessary.  

Another challenge is that active learning forces students to be, well, active. Learners must take responsibility for their education and grades by participating in class activities, creating evidence of their learning and meeting deadlines. This seems like a lot of effort compared to passively receiving content.  

As with any change, resistance is a hurdle. Students typically initially resist active learning because it’s unfamiliar – they don’t know how to succeed in this new environment. High-GPA students may be the most resistant; they already understand and excel at the current system, why would they want change? Resistance may be strongest at the post-secondary level, where grades can directly impact future employment.  

Despite initial resistance and the stresses of change, creating an active learning environment is typically worth the effort. I’ve noticed that, with time and support, students feel more empowered and competent. As their confidence grows, so does their appreciation for this style of learning.  

If I’ve convinced you on why active learning is worth it—for both instructors and learners—read my next article on how to implement these strategies in your classroom. 

Learn more at our active learning strategies workshop on April 21. Register at the TCDC website.

Further reading

What is active learning? The benefits (and challenges). Part 2 (TCDC Blog)

Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction (College Teaching)

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