5.8 Active Learning

Whole books have been written about active learning, as an approach to education at all levels. As with many topics (so my teacher friends tell me), higher education has woken up to it later than schools. Unfortunately the very scope of the approach means that there are a legion of examples and explanations. I have found that, over the past twenty years, I have been asked to explain what I mean by this phrase more than any other. The best short definition I have found dates back to 1991 in a book entitled ‘Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom’ [Bonwell and Eison, 1991] and it simply states: ‘Active Learning involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing’.

Active Learning can take place in the lecture room, in the laboratory, during design or project work, and is hard to avoid during team or group work. It can take place while the student has a screwdriver in his hand, or a pencil, or a keyboard or a phone. It is less likely to take place when the student’s hand is empty, but is still possible if the student is actively questioning or debating.

Most of the other sections of this chapter implicitly involve active learning, and I have indicated above a number of ways in which a lecture can be made more active, so it is not really necessary to further develop the theme of active learning here: most of this book is based on the principles of active learning (but reading it will only be active if you have a pencil in your hand – unfortunately  you cannot mark the pages in a blog, but you can add comments!).

Michael Prince (2004) has written an excellent review of the pros and cons of active learning. He critiques the literature on Active Learning, Collaborative Learning, Co-operative Learning and Problem-Based Learning and he is careful not to over-sell the potential benefits of any of them. Three of his key conclusions are:

  • Students will remember more content if activities are introduced to the lecture;
  • The best available evidence suggests that faculty should structure their courses to promote collaborative and cooperative environments;
  • Faculty adopting PBL are unlikely to see improvements in student test scores, but are likely to positively influence student attitudes and study habits. Studies also suggest that students will retain information longer and perhaps develop enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Some good evidence:

Richard Hake (1998) studied the mechanics understanding of more than 6500 students (using a Force Concept Inventory). Using before-and-after tests he measured the gain in understanding following both conventional teaching (‘chalk and talk’) and ‘interactive engagement‘. He found that the learning gain after interactive engagement (<g>=0.48) was about double that for conventional methods (<g>=0.23)!

For those who want to know more, Hake defined ‘gain’ in terms of the average marks of the class before ‘i’ and after ‘f’ being taught. He defined the average normalized gain <g> for a course as the ratio of the actual average gain <G> to the maximum possible average gain, i.e., <g> = %<G> / %<G>max = ( %<Sf> – %<Si>) /(100 – %<Si>),  where <Sf> and <Si> are the final (post) and initial (pre) class averages. For example if the average performance of the students ‘before’ teaching was 45% then the maximum possible gain <G>max  is 55 percentage points. If the average ‘after’ teaching is 60% then the gain <g> is (60-45)/55 = 0.27.

Hake’s paper can be found at: http://physics.indiana.edu/~sdi/ajpv3i.pdf

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

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