Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Active Learning

Active learning at root is about learners doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.

This is number 6 on my list of Learning Theories That Actually Work.

The following is verbatim from "Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom" by Charles Bonwell (Italics below are added by me).

Some of the major characteristics associated with active learning strategies include:
Doing and thinking about doing
  1. Students are involved in more than passive listening
  2. Students are engaged in activities (e.g., reading, discussing, writing)
  3. There is less emphasis placed on information transmission and greater emphasis placed on developing student skills
  4. There is greater emphasis placed on the exploration of attitudes and values
  5. Student motivation is increased (especially for adult learners)
  6. Students can receive immediate feedback from their instructor
  7. Students are involved in higher order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation)
In summary, in the context of the college classroom, active learning involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing

Bonwell wrote the above in the 1990s. Today, readers might find this a bit of a compendium of other learning theories. Just looking at my own list, there are clear parallels to Learning Styles (2 and 4), Maslow's Hierarchy (4), Gagne's 9 Events (6),  Bloom's Taxonomy (7), and Metacognition (thinking about the things they are doing).

But that's all to the good. Because Active Learning does include those things, plus it covers other very effective theories and models. Discovery Learning, in which the learners start with the problem and learn by solving it, is a type of Active Learning. Individualized Instruction is based on Active Learning; it's the logical byproduct of an emphasis on activities, skills, exploration of student's attitudes and values, immediate feedback, and higher-order thinking, which is by definition must be individualized. Take Active Learning to the next level and you get Personalized Instruction, which is the basis of Adaptive Learning. A lot of these methods and models make my list because they are just not that easy to implement yet. But all of them are types of Active Learning, and so all of them are worth exploring.

But let's take Active Learning through my criteria:
  • It makes sense on the face of it
"Doing things and thinking about the things they are doing." How is that not better than sitting and listening?
  • It has a solid history in research and practice
This has the longest history of practice of any learning model. Period. Call it apprenticeship for trades, call it discipleship for religious studies, the ancients wouldn't think of lecturing and then going home to dinner, thinking their work was done. Students did what the master did, that came first. If they could succeed at doing, then the explanation and nuance would come later. You learned this from this movie, which you will remember if you do something: click--> here (language warning)
  • It's easy to implement
Get them to do things. Get them to talk about the things they do. Any questions?
  • I've tried it, and it works
Flipping the classroom--doing the homework first--is active learning. Most online learning courses in higher education do this as part of the weekly strategy. We had a mantra when I had teams building many online courses simultaneously: "It's all about the assignments."

We had lots of pretty pictures, videos, great-looking user interfaces, and truly the best content we could find, sourced directly from the best experts. But our goal was learning, and none of those things mattered if the students didn't do something with them. So our "secret sauce" was in the assignments. We paid very close attention to what we asked the students to do, every week.

When they opened up their online classroom on a Monday, they were very likely already feeling the pressures of the coming week, feeling anything but motivated, maybe even dreading what they had to do this week for their degree program. That was the critical moment, the moment we wanted them to read the objectives and the activities and the assignment and think, "Hey, that's actually interesting. I can see how that will help me. I really want to do that."

So it's not what you tell them or show them, it's what you ask them to DO that matters. That's active learning in a nutshell.

Click here to go to the next learning theory that actually works:

Click in any order:

1. Gagne's 9 Events (Learning Model)
2. Felder-Silverman Learning Styles Model (Global/Sequential, Visual/Verbal)
3. Social Learning Theory (Role Models)
4. Maslow's Hierarchy (Identity-Level Outcomes)
5. Bloom's Taxonomy (Critical Thinking)
6. Active Learning (Discovery, Flipping the Classroom)
7. Metacognition (Self-Awareness)
8. Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels of Evaluation (Outcome Measurement)

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