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What is Active Learning?

"Active Learning is, in short, anything that students do in a classroom other than merely passively listening to an instructor's lecture."

- Donald R. Paulson & Jennifer L. Faust, California State University, Los Angeles

This short video from Northwest Iowa Community College discusses what active learning is and provides examples of how active learning can be used in both face to face and online classes. (Feb 8, 20011)

Active Learning and Why It Works

Many educators assert (incorrectly) that all learning is inherently active, and therefore students are actively invloved while listening to a traditional lecture.

Research, however, suggests the opposite.

In order for students to be engaged and increase learning, students must participate in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. 

Within this context, active learning can be understand as instructional activities involving students "doing" and "thinking" about what they are doing. 

Research shows that incorporating active learning strategies are superior to lectures in promoting the development of students' skills in thinking and writing, and therefore, the use of active learning techniques in and out of the classroom is essential for student learning to improve. 

Furthermore, cognitive research illustrates that a significant number of students have learning styles that respond to active learning techniques far better than traditional lecture.

Therefore, in light of decades of research illustrating the benefits of incorporating pedagogical active learning techniques, thoughtful and skillful instruction requires faculty to become knowledgable about the many strategies promoting active learning that have been successfully used across disciplines. 

Active Learning: Evaluation, Synthesis, and Analysis

Active Learning can be defined as any strategy that involves students in doing things, which challenges students to use the higher order critical thinking skills while they are engaging in the "doing". 

Active Learning Focuses on the Top Three Thinking Skills:

The classification graph above (originally developed by Benjamin Bloom in 1956) stops at evalutaion, failing to take into account the highest order of thinking when a student becomes a producer (or creator) of knowledge.

It's this creation element that Active Learning highlights, and therefore, it's no surprise that in the 1990's a group of pyschologists, lead by Lorin Anderson, updated Bloom's classification to reflect the 21st century learner. 

To see a detailed comparison between Bloom and Anderson's thinking skills classifications, click here

Overcome the Barriers: Don't Be Afraid - Take a Risk

It's true that there are some perceived barriers to promoting active learning, most notably (1) limited class time; (2) the increase in preparation time; the potential challenges to applying active learning techniques in large classes; (4) and a in some instances, the lack of needed materials, equipment, or resources.

However, the major barrier is the most basic: active learning inloves risk. There is the risk that students will not participate, that they won't use higher-order thinking, or that they will not learn the required content. And faculty often worry they lack the necessary skills to apply active learning, that they will lose control of the class, or that they might fail at (or be criticized for) teaching in unorthodox ways.

These barriers, although understandable, are not acceptable. The reserach proves active learning works, and students and faculty agree that active learning helps them become better learners and teachers.

So why then do we accept these barriers?

FDR said it best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Let's strike fear down, and let's not be afraid to be innovators of learning. Let's not be afraid to be "Active".

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