Authored and curated by Dr Pauline Hanesworth, Senior Advisor (Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery), Advance HE.
Our thanks go to the vlog / blog / podcast contributors to this episode:
- Dr Rick Hayman, SFHEA (Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University) on Flipped Learning vlog
- Dr Klodiana Kolomitro (Educational Developer, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada) on Implementing Active Learning podcast and blog on Active Learning and Reflection
- Professor Shane McCausland, SFHEA (Percival David Professor at SOAS) on Co-operative Learning vlog
- Charlie Reis and his students, FHEA (Educational Developer for Learning and Teaching, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University) on being a Wu Wei Teacher vlog.
In its simplest form, active learning (AL) is any learning in which students are actively engaged in and required to think about the learning process. It is often contrasted with the traditional lecture and encompasses a wide range of teaching strategies that have been the subject of much research. [See the Active learning in higher education journal and Healey’s Active learning and learning styles: A selected bibliography].
The term “active learning” is often used interchangeably with student-centred learning and/or engaged student learning. However, while related, the terms are not synonymous. Student-centred learning, although it can be active, is focused particularly on curricula designed to “best serve the student”, facilitating independence and autonomy. While, as Evans, Muijs and Tomlinson note in their research Engaged student learning: High-impact strategies to enhance student achievement, although active learning is an engaged student learning approach, being “actively involved is not the same thing as being engaged, and so-called involved students may still undertake surface learning” (p.10).
This is something that Klodiana explores in her blog on Active Learning and Reflection. Klodiana highlights that “active learning can be superficial or meaningful” and that we can miss the boat “when we focus on the activity and less so on the learning experience we are trying to cultivate”.
Instead, Klodiana encourages the building in of reflection – individually and in groups – to active learning strategies to ensure students engage in deep learning and are better able to connect their experiences across disciplines, domains of learning and contexts.
Active learning strategies
Strategies for active learning can range from the simple, such as pausing for reflection mid-lecture, to the more complex, such as forum theatre. [See O’Neal and Pinder-Grover’s How can you incorporate active learning into your classroom?]. The University of Michigan has developed a useful selection of interview-based videos in which staff explore their implementation of various strategies: Active learning: U-M faculty examples, while Webster University has produced an Active learning handbook.
Here, we focus briefly on four different types: co-operative learning, situated learning, flipped learning and problem-based learning.
Co-operative learning (CL) brings students together in teams to accomplish a shared goal. Roles and tasks are assigned either through negotiation (between student and lecturer and/or between students) or by the lecturer. Each student is responsible for – and held accountable for – their role in the wider group task, ensuring that students are recognised for both their individual as well as group achievements.
In so doing, CL encourages the development of interdependent learning and has been shown not only to improve learning and raise achievement, but also to develop interpersonal, conflict-resolution, negotiation, leadership and relationship-building skills. [See Felder and Brent’s briefing on Cooperative Learning]
Examples of co-operative learning techniques include think-pair-share, inside-outside circle, reciprocal teaching, peer editing, group project-based learning and jigsaw learning, and core to its implementation are the five conditions of positive interdependence, individual accountability, group reflection, small-group skills, and face-to-face interaction (PIGSF). [See Carleton University’s webpage on Co-operative learning techniques.]
In the below video, Shane shares his experiences of implementing a co-operative learning approach (based on the jigsaw technique), exploring not just the practicalities of implementation but also how CL relates to active learning and the benefits of CL experienced by his students.
Situated learning is focused on the situational context of learning. It views learning as best developed within the situation in which it is applied: students are “situated” in the learning experience, actively learning within the authentic – rather than classroom / abstract – context.
Field trips, placements and apprenticeships are good examples of situated learning, as are communities of practice or studio-based learning. However, it is not always possible to take students outwith the classroom. In these circumstances, simulated learning comes into play, that is learning strategies which mimic reality (system or environment), enabling students to explore, experience and apply their knowledge.
Cuthbert’s blog on Simulated learning provides some further examples and offers a case study from the University of Salford on the development of an interprofessional simulation day for health care students. [See also the accompanying video for student reflections on the approach.]
As exemplified in Coller and Scott’s Effectiveness of using a video game to teach a course in Mechanical Engineering, situated learning can facilitate the development of professional skills and values as well as knowledge, while also being active, interactive and creative. In Coller and Scott’s example, students were more deeply engaged in their learning and developed deeper conceptual understanding than their control group peers (though low cognitive processes – e.g. memorising facts – saw no difference).
Flipped learning is a teaching strategy in which students are introduced to the learning material before class, with class time dedicated to deepening understanding through peer discussion and problem-solving activities. A snapshot of the history of flipped learning and hints and tips for implementation can be found in Advance HE’s Starter tools: Flipped learning guide.
It is often assumed that the pre-class activity in a flipped classroom must be video-based (e.g. a videoed lecture). This is one approach to flipping the classroom, one articulated by Smith in her case study Taking an active approach to lectures using flipped learning, play and digital technologies. In addition to pre-session videos, Smith also incorporated other active learning techniques such as in-class polling, group and peer learning, and creative play strategies, resulting in greater interactivity within class, increased engagement in learning and a slight – though not statistically significant – increase in grades.
However, video is not a requirement. As Talbert highlights in his blog, No, you do not need to use video in flipped learning (and five alternatives), there are many pre-sessional activities that can be used (e.g. games, audio, simulations, texts etc.) as long as they are accompanied by structured activities that enable learning.
In the below video we hear from Rick who shares his learning from implementing a flipped learning approach. Rick explores the practicalities for implementation, makes recommendations for those wanting to adopt flipped learning and illustrates the benefits experienced by his students.
In its simplest form, problem-based learning (PBL) is when students work in small groups to solve an open-ended problem with no “right” answer, usually in the form of a case study. Problems are context specific and based on real world experiences. The act of investigating the problem is what drives learning in PBL, rather than a presentation of facts and concepts. Students are expected to engage with the problem and decide what knowledge / skills they need to acquire to manage the situation effectively.
A fuller guide to PBL can be found in Dart’s Problem based learning in sport, leisure and social sciences, which, despite the disciplinary focus, offers general advice and guidance as well as discipline-specific case studies.
PBL puts much of the onus on the student, with lecturers acting mostly as facilitators. There is a danger here of over-stressing the student, which could inhibit learning. As Bédard et al explore in their article Problem-based and project-based learning in Engineering and Medicine: Determinants of students’ engagement and persistence, a certain level of stress is required for learning in PBL, but too much will prevent it from occurring. Here the lecturer-facilitator must strike a balance between challenging and supporting their students, ensuring clarity regarding the knowledge to be acquired.
There can also be misalignment between a problem-based approach to learning and the assessment set. To what extent, for example, is an approach predicated on enquiry, teamwork and real-world applications best assessed through exams? In their briefing on Assessment in problem-based learning Macdonald and Savin-Baden offer five principles for assessment in PBL and suggest 14 assessment types: group presentations, individual presentations, tripartite assessment, case-based individual essay, case-based care plan, portfolio, triple jump, self-assessment, peer assessment, viva exams, reflective journals, facilitator assessment, reports and patchwork text.
Benefits of Active Learning
Learning from experience: what do students say?
As Shane and Rick explored in their respective videos, their implementation of active learning yielded a range of benefits. For Shane, co-operative learning resulted in an enriched student experience and learning journey, with students gaining not only a variety of practical employment and learning focused skills but also gaining meta-cognitive understanding that they took with them beyond the module to the programme as a whole.
Similarly for Rick, a flipped learning approach found students more motivated to learn, achieving higher grades and gaining a range of employability skills. Klodiana, in her podcast found in the section “implementing active learning”, also discusses the benefits of AL, suggesting that it can facilitate student and staff belonging, as well as support student success.
In part two of the video series from Charlie we hear from Charlie and three of his students, who explore their reaction to – and the benefits of – active learning. In particular, they consider the disjunction between learner expectations and traditional Chinese teaching and adapting to a Wu Wei teacher.
For further explorations of what a Wu Wei – “The Lazy” – teacher is, implementing a Wu Wei approach to teaching, and further benefits see parts 1 and 2 of Charlie and his students’ vlog.
Learning from the research
Indeed, a range of research has illustrated the benefits of active learning such as improved critical thinking skills, increased retention and transfer of new information, increased motivation, improved interpersonal skills and decreased failure rates. [See Prince’s Does active learning work? A review of the research.]
For example, Freeman et al’s article Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics reports on their meta-analysis of 225 studies in STEM disciplines, comparing active learning and traditional lectures. They found that students were less likely to fail in active learning courses, and that their exam grades improved. [See also the accompanying video with student testimony and exploration of how active learning can close attainment gaps.]
Similarly, implementation of active learning, in particular co-operative learning and flipped learning, has been seen to improve attendance, engagement (both student and academic) and motivation as well as learning. [See McLaughlin et al’s article The flipped classroom: A course redesign to foster learning and engagement in a health professions school, Armstong, Chang and Brickman’s research Co-operative learning in industrial-sized Biology classes, and Baptista’s case study Enhancing first year students’ experience through cooperative learning: Cases from Humanities and Social Sciences.]
Implementing active learning
However, there can be difficulties when implementing active learning: as Charlie’s students explored, there can be learner resistance to new ways of learning – as well as staff reluctance. It can also be time consuming in the first instance and there is a common fear that active learning results in reduction in content coverage.
Charlie suggests being explicit with students: explaining why AL strategies are being adopted, as well as offering scaffolding and support. Similarly, Rick offered a range of practical tips for implementation, including offering additional academic guidance in the early stages of uptake, managing expectations and contemplating partial implementation, building on existing practice and identifying opportunities for development.
Finelli et al in their research on student experience of AL, Reducing student resistance to active learning: Strategies for instructors, highlight that effective explanation and use of facilitation strategies had a significant impact on student resistance to AL, affecting not just how students engaged, but also how they rated the course and lecturer. Further guidance on minimising resistance is offered in Brent and Felder’s Understanding and minimizing resistance to learner-centred teaching.
In the below podcast first recorded for Queen Margaret University, Roni Bamber interviews Klodiana about her experience both implementing active learning and supporting others to do so. In this, Klodiana provides a thoughtful guide to implementation. She encourages us to start small, to ensure we align activity to learning outcome and to the engagement type we are trying to develop, and that we do so in a transparent way, mindfully and inclusively.
Common myths in active learning
There are many common myths in active learning that can prevent us from adopting its strategies, despite the evidence as to its benefits. Here, we address three of them.
1. Active learning advocates the death of the lecture.
The adoption of active learning and the acceptance of its principles does not mean turning your back on the lecture; the lecture is still a valuable pedagogic form, when used appropriately. Further, they are not mutually exclusive: learning which integrates short active learning strategies into a larger lecture has been proven effective.
2. Active learning requires active learning spaces.
Active learning is best facilitated through the design of active learning spaces that in particular enable small group learning. Sheffield Hallam University have produced a useful guide to Teaching in active learning classrooms, exploring such strategies as PBL, stand-up pedagogy and SCALE UP.
However, this is not a necessity. As noted above, active learning can occur in a traditional lecture format, in a traditional lecture theatre. It can even be implemented in large groups. In her podcast, Klodiana explored the implementation of AL in a class of 700 students. Similarly, Rissanen illustrates their implementation of active – here using “engaged” – learning strategies in a large undergraduate Biology course, which saw greater attendance, increased interaction, greater student satisfaction and increased grades. [See Student engagement in large classroom: The effect on grades, attendance and student experiences in an undergraduate biology course.]
3. Active learning requires physical face-to-face interaction.
Active learning is often predicated on face-to-face learning; indeed, it is one of the underlying principles of co-operative learning. That does not mean it is impossible in a distance learning / virtual environment. Within their presentation on Active and distance learning of business intelligence (BI) systems development, Fidler shows how they integrated cooperative learning – using the jigsaw technique – successfully in their course. As with face-to-face active learning, Fidler encourages prior planning and preparation, communication and the development of a sense of community. [See also Dean and Constantine’s case study on Active learning in distance education.]