When you read about active learning, articles typically begin their discourse with a definition of the term — that tells me that even though we’ve been talking about the evidenced benefits of active learning for well over two decades, it is not yet a solidified concept. So let me first clarify what Smart Sparrow defines as active learning:

Active learning is any learning activity in which the student INTERACTS or ENGAGES with the material, as opposed to passively taking in the information.

Since educators have been talking about active learning for so long, the definition has certainly changed over the years, evolving as technology does the same.

We’re here to discuss active learning as it relates to technology-based education.

Why We Shouldn’t Consider All Learning “Active”

To many, it seems as though any learning can be considered active. Is a student taking notes not actively engaged in a class, especially when compared to their peers sleeping or playing on their phones in the back of the room?

The problem here is that while the note-taking student may be engaging with the class and professor, they are not engaging with the material. When furiously scribbling notes, students are more focused on getting every word down rather than evaluating, understanding, and analyzing what it is they are writing. They have engaged with the lecture, but not the material being relayed — which is the most important part.

In a study on active learning called “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom”, the researchers stated:

“Surprisingly, educators’ use of the term “active learning” has relied more on intuitive understanding than a common definition. Consequently, many faculty assert that all learning is inherently active and that students are therefore actively involved while listening to formal presentations in the classroom. Analysis of the research literature (Chickering and Camson 1987), however, suggests that students must do more than just listen: They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.” (Bonwell and Eison 1991)

It is the degree and form by which students are actively engaging that matters. It is “learning by doing” that students really need.

We consider instruction and learning that does not engage students enough to be passive. Can a student sit back in their seat and just absorb as someone (or something) teaches them? This is a one-way exchange of information; this is passive learning.

  1. Passive learning is the lecture on deadly diseases, while active learning is the discussion on which diseases students have heard about and in what context.
  2. Passive learning is the image of a cell which is already annotated, while active learning is the blank image which students must explore and annotate themselves.
  3. Passive learning is the video watched in a dark classroom, while active learning is the simulation which reacts to incorrect interactions or pauses to ask formative questions.

Why Passive Learning Doesn’t Work

Lecturing has been around since the mid-fourteenth century. At the time, educators believed that students’ brains were empty vessels waiting to be filled. So they lectured in order to fill students’ heads, pouring out all their knowledge. Students believed learning was only about memorizing as much information as possible, so they read and re-read and re-read in a desperate effort to retain everything.

Why passive learning doesn't work

The problem is that lecture-based learning is not like filling a jug — you just don’t catch it all. Learning from lectures is more like holding out your hands and trying to keep the imparted knowledge from spilling through the cracks in this tidal wave of new information. Ultimately, students will catch some of the water, but most of it will be lost.

“Lectures alone are too often a useless expenditure of force. The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome; but it runs through. A mind must work to grow.” (Elliot 1869, quoted here)

Exactly how much imparted knowledge is slipping through the cracks? The National Training Laboratories’ Learning Pyramid presents one theory:

  1. Learners retain only 5% of what they learn from lecture. (All that waste!)
  2. …10% of what they learn from reading. (A little better.)
  3. …20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
  4. …30% of what they learn from a demonstration.
  5. …50% of what they learn from engaging in a group discussion.
  6. …75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
  7. …90% of what they learn when they themselves become the teacher.

You may have noticed that as the percentages got higher, so did learner participation in the activity. These are examples of true engagement with the material. We fill the cracks by immersing students in Active Learning.

Why Active Learning Works

Active learning is problem solving. Doing. Exploring. Working out a math problem on a piece of paper. It is superior to passive learning because it forces your brain to connect information and work to understand. Instead of trying to learn through passive activities (e.g. reading, watching, taking notes without fully processing the information), you must think about how to solve the problem at hand.

In their research on learning-centered approaches to education, Grunert O’Brien, Millis, and Cohen found that students learn more when they participate in the process of learning, whether through discussion, practice, review, or application.

Through active learning you take your knowledge to the next step: incorporating it into practice. It’s probable that you’ll make a mistake. You then get to correct your mistake. If you’re working with others, maybe they’ll jump in and provide their opinion. Then you argue about the right answer until you come to a conclusion.

Through all this, your brain has to put in effort to correct previous misconceptions, rewire your thoughts, and change the way you were thinking about a topic to accommodate (or choose not to accommodate) differing opinions. You have further engaged your brain over an extended period of time, moving more information from your short-term and working memory into your long-term explicit memory.

Furthermore, Cornell University found that research suggests learner attention starts to wane every 10–20 minutes during lectures. Incorporating active learning techniques a few times throughout class can encourage more engagement.

As the quote goes: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

So Why Aren’t We All Relying on Active Learning Pedagogy?

Lecturing is now a widely-criticized teaching model, accepted as being a poor way for students to learn — and yet, it is still prominently relied upon. Why?

Many have tried active learning in the classroom, but what is keeping instructors from permanently adopting these methods? A few things: Some fear that Active Learning methods are meant to replace the instructor — when in reality they are meant to enhance instruction. Active learning methods take more class time, so instructors can’t cover as much material in one class. Planning active learning exercises takes more prep work, which instructors can’t always spare. Many instructors have done well as lecturers thus far, so they are less inclined to overhaul their current teaching methods. Instructors lack the support, materials, and budget from their academic institution to try new active learning activities. Large class sizes prevent the realistic implementation of active learning strategies.

The latter two reasons combined creates the most common deterrent we hear from instructors. Many active learning practices are difficult to scale to larger groups, especially without extra resources. You need more teaching assistants, or you don’t have enough lab space to accommodate every student on a regular basis, or the cost of buying materials for in-class activities quickly depletes your budget. Implementing better active learning can feel like a hassle.

How to Introduce Active Learning Through Technology

But as Arizona State University points out, it is a popular misconception that active learning can only occur in small, face-to-face learning environments. Active learning can also take place in large-enrollment courses, hybrid courses, and online courses through the intentional use of cost-effective technology.

I say “intentional” because using technology does not innately provide a good active learning experience. It isn’t just about putting information on a screen. In fact, online learning is generally performing poorly because most implementations are so passive in practice; they are often just lectures or artifacts of lectures (like Powerpoint presentations) lifted and put online. For example, if you’re trying to teach students the relationship between brightness and distance, you could create a technology-based lesson that gives the formula, provides a few examples, and asks students to memorize everything. But it’s boring. Students are less likely to fully engage.

Technology-based active learning is about the larger design of the lesson. In one example, Professor Ariel Anbar constructed an active approach to teaching the relationship between brightness and distance. He designed an online lesson that asks students what they think the about relationship between brightness and distance, and then has them test and evaluate their hypotheses. Students actively explore the topic and discover the relationship between brightness and distance on their own, and in doing so, truly engage with the material. This lesson is now part of a fully online active and adaptive course, HabWorlds.

Here are a few other examples of how you can bring active learning to your class through technology:

  1. Discussion Boards — Have students take what they learned in class or readings and continue the discussion online. Require students to select something they found interesting in the material, do additional research, and write a few paragraphs about what else they have learned on the topic. Additionally require students to respond to what their peers have shared.
  2. Online Adaptive Tutorials or Labs — Use an elearning platform, such as Smart Sparrow, to build an online tutorial or lab experience where students can work through material or practice a skill as often as necessary, at their own pace, in their own time.
Online Adaptive Tutorials or Labs

Not everything you teach needs to be maximally active — that isn’t realistic or necessary. But every learning experience should incorporate some aspect of good active learning to be effective.

Engaging a Technology-Native Generation in Active Learning

New, cost-effective technologies make incorporating active learning into courses more accessible than ever. They allow instructors and learning designers to create highly active online lessons that can be used as in-class activities, as take-home modules in blended courses, or as part of fully-online classes.

By bringing active learning to courses through technology, instructors can promote “learning by doing” at scale and engage today’s technology-native generation in a format that harmonizes with their mentalities and expectations.

At that, I leave you with a quote from author Samuel Butler: “Don’t learn to do, but learn in doing.”

If want to read more on active learning, I suggest the following:

  1. Using Active Learning Instructional Strategies to Create Excitement and Enhance Learning
  2. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom
  3. Where’s the evidence that active learning works?
  4. How Does Active Learning Support Student Success?
  5. How To Retain 90% Of Everything You Learn

Our Studio team can help you incorporate active learning in your courses. Reach out to our team here.