Active learning has taken modern education and corporate learning and development (L&D) by storm. It is a learner-centred approach that emphasises engagement, interaction, and reflection.
This paradigm shift from traditional teaching to active learning underscores the learner’s role in constructing knowledge. Rather than being just a recipient of information, the learner becomes an active participant in a two-way process, whereby learning is imprinted through memorable, interactive activities and challenges.
With today’s dynamic global environment, active learning has become more critical in L&D than ever before. This teaching approach encourages employees to play an active role in their own education, fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptability, vital in the ever-evolving world of work.
What is Active Learning and How Does it Work?
First defined in 1991 by educational theorists Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison, the method includes “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” It’s a reciprocal process where cognition and demonstration combine to reinforce key learning points.
A recent study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute concluded that “active learning can put students in the driver’s seat of their lessons. Active learning techniques encourage students to produce thoughts and get feedback through interactive settings rather than passively receiving information as is common in pervasive approaches to education like lectures and readings.”
Active learning allows students to analyse, synthesise and apply knowledge rather than passively receive information. It fosters learner engagement, interaction, and deeper understanding, moving beyond the memorization of facts to cultivate higher-order thinking skills.
Key Components of Active Learning Strategies
At the heart of active learning are three fundamental components: Engagement, Reflection, and Application. Learners actively engage with the material, reflect on the content’s relevance and meaning, and apply what they’ve learned in practical, often collaborative, situations.
Here’s how those three components work in more detail:
Engagement: This aspect describes a mix of concentration and interest. Students focus on the topic in hand because it is taught in a manner that makes it intrinsically interesting.
Reflection: Students are asked to consciously reflect on the subjects they have been learning. This helps personalise and imprint the knowledge, and the repetition of key points helps fix them in memory.
Application: This aspect focuses on the practical use of key pieces of learning. By making the topic practical, students learn how useful the subject can be, motivating them to remember and focus.
Another key element of active learning is that it’s frequently collaborative. Not only do learners benefit from interaction with the educator, but they join forces in team exercises, or share their opinions and experiences in group discussion.
Benefits of Active Learning
Active learning has a plethora of benefits, some of which include:
Active learning strategies help learners retain information better. When learners actively engage with content—discussing, debating, teaching, or applying it—they’re more likely to remember it. Part of the reason for this is that activities help personalise the learning content, creating appreciation and some of the positive emotions that make an experience memorable. Information Processing Theory explains retention in three stages – sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Active learning cultivates critical thinking skills. Learners don’t just absorb information; they analyse, evaluate, and synthesise it, fostering problem-solving and decision-making skills. Critical thinking is considered a soft skill and is essential to any modern educational programme, from social science to the humanities, hard science, and vocational subjects.
Active learning often involves teamwork and collaboration. Through group activities and discussions, learners develop interpersonal skills and learn to work effectively as a team. This is particularly helpful in workplace settings where learners can support one another in the shared goal of picking up new skills they can use at work.
Active learning increases learner engagement. Interactive activities stimulate interest and motivate learners, contributing to a more enjoyable and effective learning experience. By creating engaging interactive content, you can avoid the glazed eyes or after-lunch slump of less involving courses!
15 Active Learning Examples
Now that we understand active learning and its benefits, let’s delve into some practical strategies to implement this learning approach.
Think-Pair-Share encourages collaboration and peer learning. Learners think about a question or problem individually, pair up to discuss their thoughts, then share their insights with the larger group. This method combines social learning activities like collaboration and reflection in a way that draws out the strengths of both modalities.
2. Three-Step Interviews
Three-Step interviews allow learners to apply different questioning strategies and reflect on understanding. They take turns acting as the interviewer, interviewee, and observer, promoting active engagement and deep reflection. This kind of active learning works particularly well for courses emphasising social and negotiation skills, including hospitality, politics, journalism, and sales.
3. Case Studies
Using case studies enables learners to apply concepts to real-world scenarios. This strategy fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills, linking theoretical learning to practical application. Case studies should be designed to chime with course participants’ lives and experiences, allowing them to offer their own personal insights. This allows them to become emotionally and intellectually involved in the subject under discussion, and the learning is likely to stick.
Role-play enhances empathy and problem-solving skills. By acting out scenarios, learners gain insights into different perspectives and learn to navigate complex situations. It can be particularly instructive to ask learners to inhabit both sides of an interaction, for instance, a police officer and suspect, or sales professional and buyer. Not all students will be comfortable in such a performative exercise, however.
5. Flipped Classroom
In a flipped classroom, learners explore content independently before class, freeing up classroom time for active discussions and problem-solving activities. This method works best in a highly motivated educational setting, such as vocational training resulting in professional qualifications. An obvious drawback is that, if students don’t prepare, they’ll get very little out of the class-based content. It’s also important for participants to reflect on in-class discussions after each session.
6. The Muddiest Point
The Muddiest Point requires learners to reflect on challenging areas, providing invaluable feedback for the educator. The educator will typically ask “what didn’t you understand?” or “what point did you find most complex?” and then follow up with a focused session exploring that concept. This technique helps identify misconceptions and knowledge gaps, as well as improving future iterations of course content.
7. Problem-Based Learning
Problem-Based Learning cultivates critical thinking and decision-making skills. Learners tackle real-world problems, applying knowledge and skills in a practical context. Rather than the theoretical situations covered in a typical case study, problem-based learning might take a story from the news or social media and explore it under the lens of the topic in hand. This makes the subject feel more relevant to the students, and more useful.
8. Simulations and Gamification
Simulations and gamification create immersive learning experiences. These methods engage learners in an interactive, competitive environment, enhancing motivation and learning outcomes. Such games could involve anything from quizzes to physical games or puzzles to be solved by teams. Some subjects will lend themselves to this better than others, and competitive workplaces, such as sales teams, may prove more comfortable with such challenges.
9. Peer Teaching
Peer teaching reinforces understanding and builds confidence in knowledge. By teaching their peers, learners gain a deeper understanding and consolidate their learning. The classic American “show and tell” in junior school is an example of this, but adult learners can also benefit from sharing their experiences or explaining a point with reference to an example from their own working lives.
10. Debates and Discussions
Debates and discussions encourage active participation and analysis. They foster critical thinking and the ability to articulate and defend viewpoints. Although a little out of favour in modern schools, nevertheless this classic strategy serves to imprint key issues in social, cultural, and political thinking. It’s possible to reduce the antagonistic elements of debates by imposing strict discourse rules (such as addressing the chair or avoiding ad hominem attacks).
11. Interactive Quizzes and Polls
Interactive quizzes and polls engage learners and assess knowledge. They make learning fun, while also serving as valuable tools for instant feedback. These can work just as well in-person as they might online, or in blended learning settings. They are essential as part of any online course, however as both a measurement tool and a method of monitoring progress and content effectiveness.
12. Experiential Learning
Experiential learning involves hands-on activities for practical skill development. Learners gain practical experience, increasing the transfer of learning to real-world situations. For situations in which site visits are impossible, bringing pieces of the subject into the classroom can be highly instructive. First aid lessons require this aspect, and children love this aspect of learning. It’s worth not neglecting this for adult learners of any subject, however.
13. Brainstorming Sessions
Brainstorming sessions stimulate creativity and idea generation. They foster open-mindedness, encouraging learners to consider various possibilities and solutions. When brainstorming, it’s vital not to make any value judgments on suggestions, but simply to group and list student ideas. Once everyone has had their say, the educator and class can begin to identify common themes and recurring ideas.
14. Field Trips and Site Visits
Field trips and site visits connect learning to real-world situations. They enhance understanding and contextualization of knowledge. Site visits are fun and instructive and add much-needed variety to an in-person course. They often introduce students to hands-on skills they might pursue in greater depth, or to potential workplaces or causes they can become invested in.
15. Learning Circles and Communities
Learning circles and communities help foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. They create a supportive learning environment where learners can learn from one another, share insights, and collaboratively solve problems. With digital courses, it’s often important to create a forum for learners where mutual encouragement and support can occur. When classes are held in-person, students can be encouraged to help one another with coursework and collaborative projects.
Implementing Active Learning Strategies
When incorporating active learning strategies, consider the learning objectives, the learners’ characteristics and needs, and the available resources. It’s also important to ask what students want to get out of the course (rather than any objective need for certification or qualification).
The right blend of active learning strategies can enhance the learning experience, making it more engaging, meaningful, and effective.
For instance, you’ll need a very different approach with a community of language learners from different countries, with varying levels of proficiency, than you would teaching an established workplace group where the main variable is seniority.
Let’s break these variables down a little:
Student Objectives: What would each student like to get out of the class, in terms of educational purpose and enhancement of their working or home life?
Student Characteristics: What proficiency and understanding level are your students at? If it’s a workplace course, what level of seniority do they have (how easily can the effect change)? If you have shy students, how can you involve them in activities without undue pressure?
Student Needs: What is the practical outcome supposed to be? It could be a qualification, a certificate, or simply a better understanding of a topic. It’s also worth asking, going into a class, if anyone has any additional needs, since you may have students with dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning challenges.
Available Resources: Do you provide paper and pens, devices, calculators? Do you invite guest speakers? Are their physical challenges and hands-on experiences? Do you provide meals? All these ingredients could affect the success of your course.
Challenges of Active Learning Strategies
Active learning strategies, while beneficial, pose certain challenges. They require time, resources, and planning. They also require students to buy into a style of learning that some may not be familiar with.
Let’s unpack three more common challenges of active learning in a little more detail:
Student Hesitancy: To make active learning inviting, it’s best to design courses so that students come to expect and are prepared for this style of education from day one. Begin with simple exercises like a current knowledge quiz or simple pair exercises, and then progress to more involved exercises.
It’s also important to be clear with instructions and allow time for students to get used to being active rather than passive participants. Explain why you’re using these methods, rather than more rote methods of learning. If students believe it’s in their best interests to participate, they will.
Lack of Collaboration: Before you can expect a group of disparate individuals to work together, they must feel comfortable together. Begin with simple introductory exercises, so students get to know one another before being asked to share more personal experiences. Where students are too shy to choose partners, it’s okay to assign partners for them, so long as you attend to any obvious signs of discomfort.
Running out of Time: This is very common. When students are engaged, they can lose track of time. It’s often a good sign!
However, to avoid your course running out of control, make sure you do time trials of collaborative exercises, and be very upfront with any timescales you impose. You can even use a bell or whistle to warn students when they have five or two minutes left to finish up an exercise.
All these challenges can be overcome through careful design, strategic planning, scene setting, and the use of technology to streamline and support the learning process.
Remember that active learning is often a process of trial and error. What works well with one group may not prove so successful with another. It’s worth having alternative exercises to hand in case it becomes obvious that you need to pivot to a different approach.
Measuring the Impact of Active Learning Strategies
Methods to measure the effectiveness of active learning include surveys, assessments, observation, and feedback. Make sure you incorporate a bit of time for learners to complete satisfaction surveys or training feedback forms and make it as easy as possible to do so anonymously. Don’t make these too lengthy but do allow space for comments.
It’s essential to evaluate not only engagement and knowledge acquisition but also the development of skills and attitudes and the transfer of learning to real-world scenarios. Ideally, whoever has commissioned the course will have some method for following up and measuring KPIs after some weeks or months have passed. Ask if you can receive a copy of this information too.
Active learning, with its focus on engagement, reflection, and application, offers numerous benefits. It boosts retention, enhances critical thinking, fosters collaboration, and increases engagement.
At Skillshub, we fully commit to active learning, and incorporate many of its strategies into our learning solutions, creating eLearning content which is engaging, active and involving.
Our offerings are designed to facilitate active learning, equipping learners with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to thrive in today’s dynamic world.
Incorporate active learning into your L&D strategy with our help and reap the benefits of an empowered, continually evolving workforce.
Request a demo today to get started with Skillshub!