Active learning constitutes learning that helps students to think critically, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, work efficiently and effectively in groups, and solve problems within a variety of different disciplines. Active learning is an attempt to counter traditional instructional models that primarily consist of knowledge transmission and development of inert knowledge (Whitehead 1929). Inert knowledge refers to knowledge learned out of context that is not readily transferable to novel situations. For example, students may learn the formula for determining distance but be unable to apply this information within the context of an interdisciplinary scenario.
Assumptions of Active Learning
S. E. Berryman (1991) outlines several assumptions of traditional educational practice that have been with us since the industrial age:
1. Knowledge transfer occurs when students learn decontextualized concepts;
2. Learners are information receivers or knowledge sponges and teachers are information providers;
3. Learning is a behavioristic endeavor;
4. Learners are blank slates waiting to be written upon; and
5. Knowledge is best attained independent of context.
R. S. Grabinger (1996, 666) counters these “erroneous assumptions” with the following assumptions on which active learning is based:
1. Knowledge transfer is difficult and is best accomplished with content and context learning;
2. Learners are active participants in the learning process;
3. Learning involves cognitive functioning and is constantly growing and evolving;
4. Learners’experiences and prior knowledge must be considered in all learning situations; and
5. Skills and knowledge are best acquired and assessed in authentic and holistic forms.
Rich Environments for Active Learning
In order to operationalize these assumptions, Grabinger (1996) proposes the use of instructional systems: real environments for active learning (REALs). These environments have six main characteristics or attributes:
1. Constructivist underpinnings guide the development of REALs and build on the notion that learning is an evolutionary process by which students modify their personal representations of knowledge as new knowledge is explored. This process involves social interaction and collaboration.
2. Authenticity also guides the development of REALs. Learning tasks should be as realistic as possible in terms of context and task. Authenticity is important because it encourages student ownership in learning. Through authenticity, problems hold more relevance, develop deeper meaning and understanding (thus increasing the likelihood of transfer to other situations), and encourage collaboration, cooperation, and negotiation.
3. Student-centeredness is essential in REALs because it encourages intentional, responsible learners and lifelong learning skills such as reflection and metacognition or thinking about and analyzing what one is learning and how well learning is progressing.
4. Collaboration is a key feature in REALs because students are able to shape their personal knowledge by learning from others, are willing to take more learning risks in a group setting, are able to learn about individual accountability within a group setting, and are exposed to skills and issues that they will face in an increasingly collaborative workforce.
5. Generative learning refers to learning where students generate knowledge through active participation in the learning process. Students may generate knowledge as they attempt to make sense of multiple perspectives or as they compare and contrast their knowledge representation with those of their peers.
6. Authentic assessment of the environment and of student learning is required in REALs. Teacher observation, student interviews, focus groups, product analysis, portfolios, journals, and peer evaluations are among the techniques that could be used during authentic assessment.
Instructional Strategies Associated with Active Learning
Numerous instructional strategies may be considered when implementing the principles of active learning, including: anchored instruction, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, cognitive apprenticeships, and case-based instruction. A brief definition of each follows. While each strategy is presented separately, they are rarely used independently, as there is considerable overlap among them.
1. Anchored instruction is grounded in a realistic event or problem that is meaningful and motivating to students, is complex, requires the consideration of multiple perspectives and solutions and the use of multiple processes, and facilitates collaboration, cooperation, and negotiation.
2. Collaborative learning is built on the need for students to collaborate with each other to share perspectives, solutions, and plans related to a complex task or scenario. Collaborative learning requires individual accountability within a group situation and parallels expectations in the modern workforce.
3. Problem-based learning is grounded in the process students go through to solve a realistic problem and requires self-directed learners, acquisition of content knowledge, and use of metacognitive strategies (Savery and Duffy 1994).
4. Cognitive apprenticeships are modeled after traditional apprenticeships. Whereas traditional apprenticeships involved learning a visible activity or skills, cognitive apprenticeships involve using mentors to model processes that are typically invisible, such as problem-solving, comprehension, and computation.
5. Case-based instruction involves the use of stories or teaching “cases” to facilitate contextual knowledge and understanding.
Applications of Active Learning
Educational technology provides an excellent medium to facilitate active learning. Technology provides a nonlinear, multimedia context in which to develop teaching cases and anchored scenarios. It also enables easy revisions to these contexts. Likewise, educational technology may facilitate the collaborative process and enable students to communicate with geographically disparate peers and experts.