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Advance HE Scotland Thematic Series: Active Learning

The Advance HE (AHE) Scotland Thematic Series focuses on specific learning and teaching themes. It brings together existing select AHE and non-AHE resources and sources new case studies of practice. It aims to guide practitioners to relevant material and experiences to support them in developing their own teaching practice. The theme for Winter 2018/19 is active learning.

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.

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.]