What is active learning?

At Cambridge we support the development of learners and teachers who are confident, responsible, reflective, innovative and engaged: the Cambridge Learner and Teacher Attributes. One way we do this is to encourage teaching practices that actively engage students in their own learning. Some people refer to this as ‘active learning’, and this is what I’m going to be talking about in this blog.

So what is active learning?

Active learning is a process that has student learning at its centre. It focuses on how students learn, not just what they learn. Students are encouraged to ‘think hard’, rather than receive information passively from the teacher.

There is now a wealth of research that shows us that simply telling students what they need to know doesn’t help them to gain a deep understanding of a subject area.  Instead, teachers need to be encouraged to challenge their students’ thinking, to keep them engaged and active in their own learning process.

Passive vs active learning

Here are some of the differences between passive and active approaches to learning.

Passive learning is: Active learning is:
Transcribing Processing
Accepting Appraising
Unwilling to discuss ideas Collaborating
Recalling Applying
Being right Willing to make mistakes

An example of a passive approach to learning is when students transcribe information without having to think about it; active learning involves processing the information or ideas.

Passive learning is characterised by accepting information without question or discussion; active learning requires information to be appraised, and often involves learners collaborating with each other.

Simply being able to recall information without thinking is passive learning.  Active learners are able apply information to a range of different contacts and situations.

Passive learning can be characterised by an over focus on providing the right answer and a fear of making mistakes. Making mistakes, and, crucially, learning from them is part of an active learning process.

Why is active learning beneficial?

Active learning has many benefits for learners.  It develops their autonomy, and gives them greater control over their learning – this will stand them in good stead once they leave the school environment and head on to higher education and the workplace.  It is also stimulating and intellectually exciting, and helps to keep students engaged and enthusiastic.

Some common misconceptions about active learning

Active learning is always a group-work activity

This is not necessarily the case – whole-class discussions can be just as ‘active’.  A mistake some teachers make is to assume that a certain type of activity constitutes active learning. Active learning is not about any particular type of activity, it’s about how activities are planned and managed to facilitate learning.

Active learning means doing the same thing for every student

Active learning is not the same for every student or every class.  Great active learning takes individual students’ needs into account.

Active learning is just about students having fun

Students (and teachers!) should enjoy the learning process, but it’s certainly not the case that all ‘entertaining’ activities encourage learning.  Instead of focusing on whether a task is fun, focus on what, and how, students will learn from it.

Active learning is about teachers taking a step back

A big fear about active learning is that teachers are no longer responsible for their students’ learning. This isn’t true – teachers are as essential as ever – but the role of the teacher in active learning can be different, with teachers as activators and facilitators, rather than ‘knowledge givers’.

Next steps

I hope this post has piqued your interest in active learning. For more information about the Cambridge viewpoint on active learning, and some detailed tips and resources, check out our ‘Getting Started with Active Learning’ guide.

 

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