Active learning is a much discussed concept, and clearly more than a trend. The introduction of digital tools in learning environments makes it easy to feel that active learning is taking place, but active learning is more than clicking a mouse or working with a touch-enabled device.

Active learning seeks to engage learners through participation with instructional materials. The result is improved understanding and retention of lesson material. This is a significant departure from the old lecture, listen, and read approach of passive learning.

Many studies provide a strong body of evidence in favor of active learning, but these studies openly point to the suggestive nature of their findings. However, an excellent point of reference for effective learning strategies is “Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model,” by John AC Hattie and Gregory M Donoghue. The full article is available here: http://www.nature.com/npjscilearn/

How does active learning work?

Active learning increases storage, retention, and comprehension because it stimulates surface and deep learning. As Hattie and Donoghue state, “[a]lthough not a hard and fast set of demarcations, surface learning refers more to the content and underlying skills; deep learning to the relationships between, and extensions of, ideas….” (p.10)

Surface learning occurs in two phases: acquisition and consolidation. Acquisition is the initial phase in which the learner is exposed to information and takes it into short term memory. Consolidation occurs next, when learners actively process and rehearse the material to help cement it in long term memory (p.3). Consolidation increases storage and retrieval abilities.

Deep learning – connecting the information to a bigger framework – may also begin during the consolidation phase, and active learning is naturally suited to combining consolidation and deep learning. Using interactive exercises consolidates acquired knowledge through active processing and rehearsing, while deep learning begins as learners fit the various individual pieces of learned material into the greater framework of the exercise.

How to successfully use active learning

Hattie and Donoghue point out that learning strategies are situation-specific: the learning stage dictates the learning strategy. The best strategies for the initial acquisition of information are not the best strategies for consolidating, embedding, and expanding upon information once it has been acquired (p.9).

Consolidation strategies include rehearsal, deliberate practice, reviewing records, and help seeking (p.3), while deep learning strategies involve self-questioning, self-verbalization of steps in a problem, peer tutoring, and collaborative learning, among others (p.4). Active learning can blend a number of these higher level learning strategies from both stages in one place.

Furthermore, Hattie and Donoghue assert that learning strategies should be included in the context of the lesson, not taught as separate from the material (p.9).

For example, teaching a context-free course on critical thinking has limited value because the challenges of various disciplines are unique. For students, critical thinking in history would vary greatly from critical thinking in math, and critical thinking approaches in HR and manufacturing would likewise vary for businesses. Active learning successfully blends learning strategies into the context of the assignment, which improves overall learner achievement while also introducing learning strategies at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.

Finally, learners should have clear goals and expectations for the active learning assignment as this improves results:

“Providing them early on with an overview of what successful learning in lessons will look like (knowing the success criteria) will help them reduce their anxiety, increase their motivation, and build both surface and deeper understandings.” (p.9)

For learning to be successful, be sure to set goals for the upcoming work. Ideally, these goals should be a mix of achievement and deep learning goals which are adequately challenging, and provide learners with specific intentions before getting started. (p.6)

How to add active learning to your lessons

After surface learning is acquired, use Deeper Diagram, Categories, and Short Response for rehearsal, review, and practice to consolidate learning. Use Visual Ranker and Deeper Diagram to demonstrate how individual pieces fit into a sequence or larger picture. Add a Google Form to allow for free response to thought questions at the end of lessons. And finally, don’t forget to add clear learning goals in your introduction!

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