What is Active Learning?

When I went to school, class looked very similar to this one from 1943. The professor was at the front of the room and the students were sitting in rows desperately trying to record every thing that was said.

Instructor Lecturing

These days, the goal is to have students participate in active rather than this kind of passive learning.

What is active learning?

Defining “active learning” is a bit problematic. The term means different thing to different people, while for some the very concept is redundant since it is impossible to learn anything passively.

according to the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota. They go on to define active learning as

an approach to instruction in which students engage the material they study through reading, writing, talking, listening, and reflecting. Active learning stands in contrast to “standard” modes of instruction in which teachers do most of the talking and students are passive.

The Texas A&M HSC College of Medicine states

active learning occurs when students are participating in the learning process both inside and outside the classroom, by organizing information, manipulating materials, and/or constructing new knowledge.

And in an introduction to active learning, Felder and Brent (2009) define active learning as

anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes.

So going back to the statement from the University of Minnosota, I agree with the observation that active learning is redundant in that is impossible to learn without interacting with the material, however I’m not seeing the problem in defining the term active learning. Three different sources all describe active learning as “doing” rather than “listening”.  The “doing” is having students interact with the material. The big difference between then and now is that in the good ol’days, this interaction was outside of the classroom. The professor would talk, the student would listen and then learn the material outside of class. There was little instruction on how to learn so only those that were motivated to learn the material on their own would succeed. University was a means of selecting the cream of independent learners, and then the world changed.

Our highly technical society requires people to be better educated. A university degree became a requirement for employment rather than a desirable element. The mission statement at my college is to “promote the success of every student.” Obviously then, leaving students to engage the course material on their own isn’t going to fly. Furthermore, the college aims to “provide access to lifelong learning and facilitate the achievement of personal and educational goals.” Inherent in this statement is that the instructors need to teach students how to learn as much as the knowledge base of a particular discipline. Therefore, active learning needs to move from outside the classroom where only the most motivated students succeed to inside the classroom where all students have the potential for success. The topic of the next post will be “How to Promote Active Learning within the Classroom”.


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