Defining Active Learning and Choosing a Strategy

Defining Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning, is any type of learning that requires the learner to be active in the process rather than passive. This can be as simple as answering a question or as complex as solving a case with a team of peers.

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at University of Michigan defines Active Learning more technically as:

“a process whereby students [actively] engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content” (University of Michigan, CRTL).

In other words, the emphasis is on active engagement, processing and application.

Why would you use an Active Learning Strategy? 

EEG Chart of Brain activity with class times circled. The lines here are flat, representing that the brain is more passive in class than when sleeping.

One week of brain activity: Notice the flattened lines during class, but how much activity happens during study and lab times.

Quite simply, to engage the student in the act of learning more fully. Let’s take a look at some observations from a study by Dr. Eric Mazur, a Harvard professor, and active learning pioneer, to answer that question.

Notice all the spots that are circled on this EEG graph at the right. They are all class periods. And notice also, that most of them are more flatlined than Sleep. They actually look much more similar to the brainwaves for watching TV.  This is passive activity as registered by the brain. There are not a lot of neurons firing there!

Now, look at the chart where it says Lab and Homework or Study. These are brainwaves that show some promise. That’s because by reading, or taking notes, or by working actively on an experiment, the subject is engaging more of their brain and actively trying to learn instead of just passively receiving information. By engaging more of their brain in learning, they are creating more neural pathways, helping them to remember the material better and connect it to other pieces of knowledge that already have or will gain later.

When should you use an Active Learning Strategy?

Not every active learning strategy is suited to every level of learning. For example, it would make no sense to give a first year student an active learning assignment that required evaluation, until you know that they can remember and understand those basic ideas. So, if your learning outcome says, “Students will know…” or “Students will identify…” a Top Hat quiz  might be the best active learning strategy. If your learning outcome says “Students will differentiate…” or “Students will argue/defend…” assigning a case to analyze may be more suitable.  As we move through the strategies, we will identify the best fit for students in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

This doesn’t mean that everything has to change overnight! Just like there are levels to learning, there are levels to teaching, too.  As Dr. James Lang reminds us with his book “Small Teaching” the small changes are best. Enacting one small change to your teaching arsenal and then another next semester, and so on, will put you ahead in the long run by creating less stress for you and more interactivity for your students each semester. You also don’t have to use these techniques in every class meeting. The lowest effort ones can be used more frequently. The high effort ones can be used once a week or less. Start slowly and build.

Choosing an Active Learning Strategy

To pick the best active learning strategy for your class and content, look to your learning objectives, your assessment, and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Each learning objective should map to a level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Unlocking which level will help you pick the right activity for the job.

  • Look for the verb in the learning objective
  • Match them to the taxonomy (linked above) to determine the level of skill needed to meet the objective
  • Use that level of skill to determine which active learning strategies will work best for your objective

The following links with take you to pages that describe different active learning strategies – what they are used for, how difficult they are to set up, how to set them up and how to vary them to fit your needs in the classroom.