Seven Principles, part four: Active Learning

This week’s foray into (the slightly-rearranged) Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education takes us to Active Learning. Chickering and Gamson assert good practice in undergraduate education “encourages active learning.” Among all of the Seven Principles, this particular one might have the most research behind it; there is no shortage of studies that testify the efficacy of active learning.  

What does “active learning” mean, though? It’s a phrase that we hear thrown around a lot, but often under the assumption that, well…everybody knows what “active learning” means, right? To be more precise about active learning and what it really means in our classes, it helps to think first about what it isn’t. Active learning isn’t something that students can merely absorb without effort of their own. It isn’t delivering content for students to passively absorb. Instead, active learning puts the student at the center of the learning process, and can encourage them to take ownership of their learning. As Michael Prince defines it,

Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing. While this definition could include traditional activities such as homework, in practice active learning refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom. The core elements of active learning are student activity and engagement in the learning process. Active learning is often contrasted to the traditional lecture where students passively receive information from the instructor.

The key element, though, is students’ being somehow actively engaged with the material. That can look like a lot of different things in our classrooms–reading a document then working in groups to critically analyze it; finding scholarly resources to address a particular research question; simply discussing a particular topic rather than hearing a lecture about it.

If this sounds common-sensical, then that shows how active learning is suffused throughout the conversations on college-level teaching and learning. We know that it’s a set of tools that not only help our students learn better, but often make our classes more enjoyable to teach as well. Of course, there are certain times and places where exposition (most often accomplished via lecturing) might be the appropriate method to employ. But the overwhelming body of research on student learning suggests that this should be kept to a minimum in favor of active learning strategies.

So what does active learning look like in our specific courses and classrooms, with our particular students? There is a wide range of answers to those questions. The beauty of incorporating active learning techniques into our pedagogy is that there is so much to choose from, we’re bound to find things that fit our needs and those of our students.

For a bit more background on active learning, one of the classic sources is a meta-study of over 200 individual studies on active learning techniques in STEM courses that found consistently significant results for improvement of student learning. J.P. McCarthy and Liam Anderson’s 2000 study of active learning in history and social science was an early entry in what became a number of studies on active learning in the non-STEM disciplines. Jason Farman’s “A Manifesto for Active Learning” is a great call to action and discussion of the benefits of incorporating active learning into our courses. Finally, Bonwell and Eison’s 1991 report, “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom,” is widely credited with placing the idea of active learning firmly within the discourse on higher-ed pedagogy.

For integrating active learning strategies into your classrooms, here are some good collections of resources with which to start:

If we want our students to not just absorb specific content, but learn in a meaningful way, employing active learning as the bulk of our pedagogy is a must. As Steven Levy has argued,

Curriculum is more than the content of the subjects we teach. One of its goals is certainly the mastery of a specific body of knowledge. But beyond that, the subjects we focus on are means to teach our students how to observe, how to question, how to reason, how to analyze, how to plan, how to make decisions, how to communicate, and how to think.

Learning involves more than just passively receiving course content, then. It is a process where students must become active partners in the process of their education, to take ownership of that course content and its applications. It’s little wonder that Chickering and Gamson pointed to it as one of their Seven Principles for Good Practice.


As always, if you’d like to follow up with CETL staff on anything here, or if there’s any way CETL can be of service to you and your students, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Finally, this week may all of your students be as rapt with attention to you as Yoshi is when it comes to basketball on TV.

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