This text was initially published by Vitrine technologie-éducation under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence, before Eductive was launched.

The aim of this one pager is to provide a brief overview of the theory that underlies active learning and to point out some of the well-known forms and approaches. It is taken from a blog on active learning prepared for the SALTISE website prepared by Elizabeth Charles (Dawson College) and Gale Seiler (McGill University – Faculty of Education).

What is Active Learning?

Think of something you understand very well. It could be repairing car engines or the workings of the Krebs Cycle. Next, think about how you learned it, that is, how you came to understand it so well. We have asked these questions of many students and teachers. With remarkable predictability, they respond by saying their learning involved doing things and figuring things out, repeatedly, over time. Most say that their understanding developed in different ways, for example, from doing, watching, reading, thinking, representing, listening, and talking. Regardless of the modality, the key was becoming engaged with the content on some deep level (cognitive and affective) and having the opportunity to try out or practice the nascent skill or knowledge, in some setting (social).

If you answered the initial questions in a similar way, you’ve described how the fields of the learning sciences, cognitive science, and educational psychology now think about how people learn. These Constructivist and Social Constructivist theories of learning tell us that people learn by actively constructing knowledge and understanding, rather than passively receiving knowledge from a teacher or textbook. Thus, learning builds on prior knowledge and is promoted by having experiences and making sense of them, forming and validating ideas, and communicating with others.

Definition: Active Learning has become a way to describe the types of pedagogy that are rooted in constructivist learning theories. Active learning calls for student participation that is not just social, but involves meaningful cognitive engagement with the content, both individually and collectively. This often involves purposefully designed learning activities and situations that draw students into thinking with peers, in small groups and large groups —generally referred to as collaborative learning. Examples of collaborative active learning are Problem Based Learning (PBL)Learning by Design (LBD)Inquiry-Based Instruction, and Peer Instruction, to list a few.

Strategies & techniques: Other aspect of active learning is the shifting away from a transmission role for teachers. Content delivery and warm-up assignments are moved out of the classroom, so in-class time can be spent discussing concepts, addressing misconceptions and questions, applying important ideas, and building deeper understanding. Flipped classrooms and Just in Time Teaching (JiTT) are examples of active learning approaches that cross between in-class and out-of-class. In many of these approaches, technology is often used to help learners visualize knowledge (e.g., simulations and animations) and provide frequent feedback opportunities (e.g., clicker questions), a hallmark of active learning.

Practical concerns: It would be simplistic to view the teacher’s role as merely changing from “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” Though such change is an important feature of active learning, teachers must synchronize or orchestrate the cognitive, pedagogical, and practical aspects of the classroom (or learning environment) without being at the centre of the instruction. Active involvement that includes material, social, and intellectual products may be expected of students in these learning environments, and this necessitates fostering new roles for students who are accustomed to being passive recipients of knowledge.

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