What Is Active Learning? [And Why We Should All Be on Board]

For decades, pedagogical attempts have been made to drive engagement among students when it comes to course materials. This struggle ended when scholars started asking and researching the right questions: 

What is active learning?

Have you decided to transition to active learning but don’t know where to start? 

We’ve got you covered! At Mark in Style, we’ll present to you all the necessary information you need. Here are some vital points we aim to cover: 

✅ Active learning definition
✅ Theoretical background
✅ Benefits of active learning
✅ Active learning in the classroom
✅ Challenges and tips to overcome them 

Let’s dive right in.

What Is Active Learning and Why Is It Important? 

Active learning simply means that students will be participants in the learning process instead of being passive learners. 

But how can we tell the difference between these two?

Before we answer this question, let’s get to know the concept of active learning first.

Active learning is a concept coined by Charles Bonwell and James Eison in the book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. In this 1991 publication, the authors define active learning as:

A method of learning in which students are actively or experientially involved in the learning process and where there are different levels of active learning, depending on student involvement.

What does it mean for learners to be involved in the process?

This means that instead of being passive receivers of information in the classroom, students participate in creating and distributing that information. Simplifying it further:

The class reads a chapter from a World War II history monograph, and the teacher randomly divides students into learning cells of two students each. One of them begins the process by asking a question about the event that occurs to them. The other cell participant tries to answer it with supporting reasons.

This discussion of questions happens in every cell until enough knowledge has been created about the event. The role of the teacher is to address the misconceptions (in this case, gaps in comprehension about immediate causes, consequences, the next steps the Allies or Axis powers took, and so on).

The knowledge generated in this history lesson was done following truly active learning methods. The learners will retain such knowledge for longer because they made it themselves, their peers contributed to it, and they got instant feedback from their teacher. 

Active teaching is rewarding for the teacher, too. Wondering how? 

This activity helps them to:

  • Track their students’ progress in real-time 
  • Provide learning feedback
  • Identify parts of history that students struggle with
  • Recognise and clear misconceptions and gaps in learning 

The active learning approach is a step away from the traditional teaching process where the teacher delivers lectures while the students would passively listen and appear for examinations at some point in the module.

Instead, active learning is a method that places the interests and needs of the students at the centre of the process. Rather than focusing solely on what students learn, active learning aims to improve how they learn. 

So, instead of passively receiving knowledge from the teacher, students are pushed to ‘think hard’ in this classroom. According to research, you can’t simply instruct pupils what they need to know and expect them to comprehend. Educators must make sure to push their pupils’ thinking in several different directions.

[bctt tweet=”Active learning activities may involve teaching strategies, including things such as role-playing, problem-solving, polling, debates, group work, case studies, and simulations.” via=”no”]

Passive vs Active Learning

Teaching as a one-way flow of information from teacher to student is now often regarded as a flawed idea to inspire pupils to learn. Here’s a comparative look at examples of passive learning classroom activities:

In passive learning, the teacher hands out annotated images of a plant cell. In contrast, active teaching provides an unlabeled picture of a cell for students to annotate themselves after trips to the lab or after observing a 3D model in class. 

Passive learning is the video watched in a dark classroom without thinking prompts or discussion. Active learning is the simulation that reacts to student interaction or pauses to ask formative questions.

Active Learning: Its Roots in Theory

The entire pedagogy of active learning operates on the theory of constructivism. 

Constructivism has at its core the idea that learning is an active process. Constructivism is a model of learning based on the idea that by thinking about what we’ve experienced, we may better understand the world around us. We all have our own “mental models” and “rules” that help us make sense of the world. So, learning is nothing more than the act of adapting our mental models to new information.

The aspects of the process of learning that active learning plays upon are the following.

Social constructivism theory states that kids learn better in the company of others. In this regard, active learners benefit most from social learning theory being implemented in the classroom. 

Lev Vygotsky theorised about the Zone of Proximal Development. This area is between what a student can accomplish on their own and what she can accomplish with the help of an experienced educator. This area is the focus of learning activities for good teachers. 

Teachers who know how to scaffold learning do so by giving pupils directions and help based on their present level of competence. This aids students in gradually building up their understanding.

Now that we understand the importance of teachers in these learning approaches, their role gets streamlined further: 

Jerome Bruner developed the theory of learning through discovery, where the teacher guides learners through problem-solving situations they’ve created. Learners’ previous knowledge also facilitates learning, as David Ausubel convincingly argued.

Which brings us to the next question:

What Are the Benefits of Active Learning? 

The reason why passive learning is inadequate is that it does not feature equitable learning.

It is common in a ‘traditional’ class for only a few students in a given class to join in asking or replying to questions.

There’s more:

You can’t quite counter classroom distractions with one-sided lectures. If the classroom is not the hub of active learning activities, students’ attention is bound to taper off. The solution for attention and knowledge retention, critical thinking, and catering to distinct learning styles lies in active learning. 

The benefits of active learning are:

Develops Collaborative Skills

Collaboration is a cornerstone of the majority of teaching and learning approaches. Students gain the active learning skills to interact in the workplace by working together in breakout groups. However, students whose only experience is with essay writing and exams will be at a disadvantage in today’s increasingly team-oriented workplaces. They will have to be brought up to speed. 

Increases Engagement

Students in an active learning environment are actively engaged. They are processing ideas and developing a deeper understanding of whether they are solving a problem, discussing a topic, or exploring an idea.

Increases Retention

Research shows that students remember about 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear but a massive 90% of what they do. And active learning classrooms are, well, more active by default. Students often apply their ideas, work on collaborative projects, or use approaches like design thinking or the agile process to solidify their learning.

Encourages Critical Thinking

Today, fake news is rampant. So, the ability to identify logical fallacies or legitimate sources is absolutely crucial. Active learners resist the act of passively processing information because they tend to actively engage with other viewpoints and sources.

When students discuss their ideas, they make better arguments, challenge assumptions, and spot logical fallacies.

Sparks Creative Thinking

The ability to think creatively is one of the most important yet one of the most difficult things to teach in the typical classroom. Students who engage in active learning come to understand that creativity is a process that develops over time, not just a one-time eureka moment. The more they exercise their creative muscles, the more they realise how both independent reflection and group interchange may result in greater ideas and more original solutions to issues.

Encourages Risk-taking

In the beginning, students may resist the transition to active learning. Passive learners are used to sitting in class and taking notes (or zoning out) until the speaker has finished talking. 

In contrast, active learning pushes students out of their comfort zones by encouraging them to take risks. They’ll gain self-assurance and self-possession as they get more comfortable presenting their ideas, justifying their conclusions, and improving on those of others.

Examples of Active Learning

Active learning responds well to social learning exercises in the class like gamification.

Here are some ways to implement active learning in the classroom:

Class Discussions

A class discussion can take place either in person or online. Discussions can be held with any class size; however, they are usually more productive in smaller groups. This setting enables instructors to direct the learning experience. 

Discussions prompt students to think critically about the topic and apply reasoning to analyse their own and others’ viewpoints. Given that learners are expected to discuss the material in a constructive and informed manner, a discussion is a useful follow-up exercise if the unit has previously been thoroughly covered.

And that’s not all:

In addition to helping students explore a variety of viewpoints, discussions also increase intellectual agility while respecting student voices and experiences. They also help students develop habits of collaborative learning while also enabling them to develop skills in formulation and integration.

Gallery Walks

A gallery walk is when students in groups go around the classroom or workshop actively participating in discussions, contributing to other groups, and ultimately developing and sharing knowledge on a topic.

Learning by Teaching

Learning through teaching is another type of active learning approach where students actively investigate a topic and prepare the information to teach to the class. This helps students learn their subject matter even better, and students can sometimes learn and communicate better with their peers than with their teachers.

Learning Cell

A learning cell is a good approach for two students to study and learn together. Marcel Goldschmid of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne pioneered the concept.

Here’s the deal:

A learning cell is a learning procedure in which two students alternately ask and answer questions about widely read texts. Students read the coursework and write down any questions regarding the reading to prepare for the assignment. The teacher assigns students to pairs at random for the next class meeting. The process begins with one student from each group being designated to start by asking one of their questions to the other. 


After the two students have discussed the issue, the other one will pose a question, and the process will continue in this manner. After that, the teacher will walk from cell to cell, providing feedback and addressing questions. A student dyad is another term for this arrangement.

Think-Pair-Share Exercises

In a think-pair-share activity, students take a minute to reflect on the preceding lesson. Then, discuss it with one or more of their classmates before sharing their thoughts with the class as part of a formal discussion. Misconceptions should be clarified by the instructor during this official discussion period. That’s because students will be unable to engage in meaningful conversation without some knowledge of the topic matter. 

As a result, a think-pair-share exercise is beneficial when learners are able to recognise and connect what they already know to what others are learning. Observing pupils to determine if they comprehend the topic can also be beneficial for instructors.

Just-in-time Teaching

Just-in-time teaching emphasizes the active learning style by using pre-class questions to establish common ground between teachers and students prior to the start of the class period. Warmup activities are typically open-ended questions designed to motivate students to prepare for class and elicit students’ ideas on learning objectives.

Final Thoughts

As great as active learning sounds, it has its own challenges, which frequently revolve around these issues:

  • Students resisting active learning activities
  • Time-consuming tasks
  • Students resisting collaboration 

Luckily, each of these challenges has a solution:

Initiating active learning examples early on in the course, explaining its many benefits to students, and starting with larger groups where members introduce themselves are ways to win students over to your side. 

What’s more:

Carefully selecting the most important course components and going with them, drawing up a clear list of learning strategies, and using them are some ways to reduce the time that goes into designing active learning activities

The bottom line is:

Once you’ve gained ground with what is active learning, you’ll reap numerous benefits in a class where all your students are active learners and take delight in creating their own understanding of the concepts you’re teaching. 

People Also Ask

Q: How to be an active learner?

A: You can become an active student by using these tricks:

  • Preparing – do the assigned readings, try to visualize what will be taught.
  • In class – take notes, ask questions, relate new learning with what you already know, think of real-life applications.
  • Self-study – create your own practice questions, discuss course components with your peers, and try the learning-by-teaching approach.

Q: What does it mean to be an active learner?

A: Active learning focuses on teaching approaches that provide students with opportunities to interact with topics repeatedly, in a variety of ways, and with rapid feedback. So, knowledge can take root in their minds. Teaching tactics such as role-playing, problem-solving, polling, debates, group work, case studies, and simulations may be used in active learning activities.

Q: Why is active learning important?

A: What active learning does is it helps to maintain student concentration and deepens learning towards higher-level skills like critical thinking. It also helps to engage students who might otherwise struggle.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *